If there's one thing that you don't want happening on board a ship, it's a fire. People on board burning ships can't simply run out onto the streets, as they hopefully could in the case of a structural fire, plus many people caught belowdecks don't have windows nearby to climb out of. Then, there's also the fact that crew members fighting such fires have to work in narrow, claustrophobic passageways, instead of wide-open roads. Given that fires are particularly possible on military ships, due to attacks by enemy forces, America's Naval Research Laboratory is now developing a special something to help fight fires at sea - it's called SAFFiR, the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot.

SAFFiR will be an autonomous bipedal humanoid robot, based on the CHARLI-L1 robot created at Virginia Tech - the school is a partner in the project, as is the University of Pennsylvania.

Part of the reason for choosing a humanoid design is the fact that ships are created with that body form in mind. A short, wide, wheeled robot wouldn't do well trying to navigate the narrow corridors, hatches, ladders and stairs on a naval ship.

Additionally, human crew members need to be able to relate to it (somewhat) as it will be fighting fires alongside them - although SAFFiR will be autonomous, it will also be designed to track the focus of attention of a human team leader, respond to gestures such as hand-pointing, and possibly even understand and respond to natural spoken language.

Virginia Tech's CHARLI-L1 robot, which SAFFiR is based on

SAFFiR will be equipped with multiple sensory devices, including a video camera, gas sensor, and a stereo infrared camera that will allow it to see through smoke. The robot's upper body will be capable of operating fire suppression equipment and throwing propelled extinguishing agent technology (PEAT) grenades. Its lower body will be able to walk in all directions, step over obstacles, and maintain balance in pitching seas, thanks to six-axis force/torque sensors in the feet.

Weight will be minimized and distributed by an aluminum central structure, along with titanium springs at the joints. The battery pack should allow for approximately 30 minutes of firefighting action.

Although SAFFiR is still in development, it is hoped that it will be ready for testing in a shipboard environment by next September.

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