Navy unveils firefighting humanoid robot at EXPO

WASHINGTON – Scientists unveiled a firefighting robot Feb. 4 at the Naval Future Force Science & Technology EXPO.

The Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot, referred to as SAFFiR, which is sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, was able to walk on uneven floors. It used thermal imaging to identify overheated equipment and put out a small fire with a hose in November 2014 aboard the USS Shadwell.

Virginia Tech researchers developed SAFFiR, a two-legged humanoid robot to help in evaluating the applications of unmanned systems in damage control and inspections aboard naval vessels.

“We set out to build and demonstrate a humanoid capable of mobility aboard a ship, manipulating doors and fire hoses, and equipped with sensors to see and navigate through smoke,” said Dr. Thomas McKenna, ONR program manager for human-robot interaction and cognitive neuroscience. “The long-term goal is to keep Sailors from the danger of direct exposure to fire.”

SAFFiR stands 5 feet 10 inches tall and weights 143 pounds.

“Balancing on any type of terrain that’s unstable – especially for bipedal robots – is very difficult,” said Brian Lattimer, associate professor for mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech. “Whole-body momentum control allows for the robot to optimize the locations of all of its joints so that it maintains its center of mass on uncertain and unstable surfaces.”

Infrared stereovision and a rotating laser for light detection and ranging are among the sensors on the SAFFiR that allow it to detect smoke. It is programmed to take measured steps and handle hoses on its own, but for now it takes instructions from researchers at a console.

Researchers said they want to equip the robot with enhanced intelligence, communcations capabilities, speed, computing power and battery life for extended applications in the future.

Even with added intelligence, however, SAFFiR will take its instruction from Sailors and “fire bosses” working remotely in the event of a fire or other dangerous event.

“We’re working toward human-robot teams,” McKenna said. “It’s what we call the hybrid force: humans and robots working together.”