Robot firefighter puts out its first blaze

Robot firefighter puts out its first blaze

In Mobile, Alabama, a humanoid robot looked on as a fire burned aboard the USS Shadwell. Its infrared eyes scanned the blaze to find its heart, and its robot arms grabbed a hose to spray water into the inferno.

This was the first live test for SAFFiR – the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot – and the first time a robot has ever fought a fire. Developed by roboticists at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blackburg for the US Navy, SAFFiR is intended to be part of the firefighting equipment of the future on board every Navy ship, tackling fires without risking human life.

The robot, which weighs 63 kilograms and stands 178 centimetres tall, uses dual cameras to help it see and move around, laser sensors to provide the exact distances between objects and thermal cameras to help it find fires.

Researchers at Virginia Tech have worked on SAFFiR for four years. It is the conceptual ancestor of THOR (Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot), the university’s entrant to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge. Search, rescue and emergency response have emerged as important applications for humanoid robots, which can navigate human environments and manipulate tools without putting lives in danger.

Although SAFFiR can operate autonomously and is able to walk and grab a hose on its own, the current version takes all other instructions from a human operator.

In a press release yesterday, Thomas McKenna of the Office of Naval Research said the Navy is planning to sponsor a more advanced version of the robot, one with better battery life and more intelligence.

“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 McKenna. “The long-term goal is to keep Sailors from the danger of direct exposure to fire.”

But he foresees SAFFiR being a multi-purpose robot. “We have taken a look at other kinds of sensors that you can put on these robots. A bipedal robot could be configured to take shipboard measurements, and scan for corrosion and leaks.”

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