Robot Puts Out Shipboard Fires

By Valerie Insinna
The military employs robots for dull, dirty and dangerous tasks such as disposing of bombs or infiltrating environments that are unsafe for a human to enter. Another possibility currently under development is sending them to find and put out fires aboard Navy ships.

A group of Virginia Tech engineering students recently demonstrated just that with their Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot, or SAFFiR. During a demonstration with the Office of Naval Research held last fall aboard the decommissioned USS Shadwell, the robot was able to walk toward a heat source, operate a hose and quench the flames with water.

“Firefighting on a ship is very, very dangerous, but retrofitting ships is also very, very expensive,” said John Seminatore, the student leader of the program. “The idea was: What if we could have some kind of automated fire fighting system that could move around the ship?”

SAFFiR was designed and built by 15 students over a period of four years, he said. The bipedal, humanoid robot weighs 140 pounds and is almost six feet tall, stated a news release. It can walk, move its head and operate a hose.

The robot is equipped with a stereo imaging camera, a stereo thermal imaging camera that detects heat and a laser rangefinder for mapping. It also features a balancing system that allows SAFFiR to remain stable while walking around a moving vessel, Seminatore said.

The team has not integrated the software necessary to use the infrared camera, so SAFFiR was not yet able to autonomously find the fire during the demo, he said. A human operator was kept in the loop.

It also currently needs an operator to direct it where and when to move, he said. Using a computer generated map, the user designates a point on the ground, and the robot moves to that location. The goal is to improve SAFFiR so that it can autonomously find a fire and move toward it while avoiding any obstacles in its way.

The team also wants to give the robot the ability to follow simple verbal commands from human firefighters — such as dousing a fire with water or pointing out where there is smoke, he said.

The students plan to further develop the robot in future versions with ONR, Seminatore said. They currently are building a new SAFFiR, which will be completed by June for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s robotics challenge. The upgraded bot will have more computing power and will operate on batteries instead of having to be plugged in.

It will also have a more advanced artificial intelligence, including object recognition, he said. “Just for a robot to know that’s a fire nozzle is really difficult, much less being able to automatically grab the fire nozzle.”

Topics: Robotics

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