June 06, 2012      

You won’t see them hanging from hook and ladder trucks any time soon, but they are most surely coming. Robot firefighters being developed by the U.S. Navy could fill a huge gap in the ranks of many needy volunteer firefighter departments while filling in the financial gaps in many public service budgets.

Of the estimated 30,000 fire departments in the U.S., 5,290 are mostly volunteer and 20,480 are all volunteer. It’s this vast majority of departments dependent on firefighter volunteers where the naval robots could really make a big difference. Always-on-the-job robots might well take on the role of first responders, while their human, volunteer counterparts arrive as the second wave of response. For now, however, it’s naval vessels–military, commercial and cruise lines–that will be the first to see the robots pulling hoses through the gangways.

Overboard, with or without a lifeboat

The U.S. Navy, reports Discovery News, is developing a ?humanoid robot capable of throwing extinguisher grenades as it nimbly moves about the narrow passages and ladder ways of modern warships.?

Naval FireBot

Many people believe that water poses the biggest danger at sea. They?re wrong. A shipboard fire represents a far greater peril, since flames can sweep across a vessel within minutes. There?s only one exit route once a ship is fully involved in a fire?overboard, with or without a lifeboat.

Looking for a safer and more effective way of fighting shipboard fires, scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington are working on a humanoid robot that can fight fires on nearly any type of seagoing vessel?military and commercial. The Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR) is being designed to move throughout a ship without any external guidance, fighting fires and interacting with people, including fellow firefighters. The system would take over many of the most dangerous firefighting tasks currently performed by humans.

The researchers settled on a walking humanoid design due to the fact that the system will have to operate within a complex environment designed primarily for human mobility. Narrow passageways, ladders, watertight doors and other types of shipboard obstacles would all hinder or block robots equipped with wheels or tractor mechanisms. If the researchers manage to reach their goals, the walking robot will be able to stride down passageways, clamber up and down ladders and deftly avoid other obstacles as nimbly as an able seaman?even during rough sea conditions.

Sensors and Interfaces

The scientists are planning to equip SAFFiR with advanced navigation technology and multiple sensors, including a gas detector, a video camera and a stereo infra-red camera designed to see through smoke. The robots?s upper body will have sufficient strength to handle fire suppression devices and throw propelled extinguishing agent technology (PEAT) grenades. The system will be packed with enough battery power for approximately 30 minutes of firefighting.

FirBot Diagram

SAFFiR?s developers want to make the robot function as both an independent worker and a team player. Custom algorithms currently being developed will give the system autonomous mobility and decision making capabilities. To allow natural interaction with human co-workers, SAFFiR will include multimodal interfaces that will allow it to gain the attention of a human team leader as well as to understand and respond to various kinds of physical gestures, such as pointing and hand signals. In certain situations, natural language capabilities may also be incorporated, as well as other modes of communication and supervision currently under development.

The researchers plan to test the firefighting robot in a realistic firefighting environment onboard the ex-USS Shadwell, a decommissioned World War II-era dock landing ship, in late September 2013. If everything goes as expected, humanoid robots could be putting out fires at sea?on Navy vessels as well as freighters and perhaps even cruise ships?sometime within the next five years.

Other Research

The Navy isn?t the only branch of the U.S. military that?s investigating humanoid robot applications. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is currently working with robot developer Boston Dynamics on a range of robot designs. Current prototypes include BigDog, a quadruped robot for travel across rugged terrain, PETMAN, an anthropomorphic robot for testing equipment, RISE, a robot that climbs vertical surfaces and SquishBot, a shape-changing ?chemical robot? that moves through tight spaces.

Boston Dynamics will also participate in DARPA?s Robotics Challenge competition this October, in which research teams will compete in ?challenges? involving staged disaster-response scenarios. The robots will have to successfully navigate a series of physical tasks corresponding to anticipated, real-world disaster-response requirements.