Fire onboard a Navy ship at sea can be dangerous because of all the fuel and munitions present. To help sailors put out such fires, a team of engineers at the Naval Research Laboratory are developing a walking, firefighting robot. The reason: humanoid robots should be able to negotiate the confines of a ship designed for humans. Military planners might also be thinking of adapting the humanoid robot to fighting on the battlefield.
The robot, given the ungainly name and acronym Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot or SAFFiR, will carry a suite of cameras, including IR for seeing through smoke, and sensors tuned to ferreting out fire and smoke. The robot’s battery should give it 30 min of firefighting time. Its upper torso will be designed to handle a variety of firefighting equipment, including hoses and foam applicators and propelled extinguishingagent technology (PEAT) grenades. These grenades, still under development, contain a dispersal cartridge that disseminates a fire-suppression agent — water, firefighting foam, or one of the halon replacements being developed.
One challenge for robot designers is making SAFFiR capable of interacting with human firefighting-team leaders. Naval engineers are developing algorithms that will let the robot make decisions as a team member and interact with the human leader, tracking his or her focus of attention and letting the robot understand language, gestures, and hand signals.
Researchers from Virginia Tech and the University of Pennsylvania are collaborating with the Navy on the project, and SAFFiR is currently based on Virginia Tech’s Charli-L1 robot. It will likely undergo tests in a realistic environment onboard the Navy’s decommissioned USS Shadwell (LSD-15) in Mobile Bay, Ala. The ship is routinely used to evaluate firefighting and damage-control equipment and techniques.