US Navy Unveils a Firefighting, Humanoid Robot

By Carl Engelking | February 5, 2015 1:53 pm
The Office of Naval Research-sponsored Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR) undergoes testing aboard the Naval Research Laboratory's ex-USS Shadwell in Mobile, Ala. SAFFiR is a bipedal humanoid robot being developed to assist Sailors with damage control and inspection operations aboard naval vessels. (U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released)

SAFFiR undergoes testing aboard the decommissioned USS Shadwell in Mobile, Ala. (U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams)

Someday, when a fire breaks out aboard a U.S. Naval ship, sailors may bypass the red fire extinguishers and instead call upon the services of a 5-foot, 10-inch, 143-pound firefighting robot.

Scientists unveiled the two-legged humanoid robot Wednesday at the Naval Future Force Science & Technology Expo, and we challenge you to find a cooler way to put out a fire. Although the robot has only demonstrated its abilities in a controlled environment, scientists envision a future where human-robot hybrid teams work together as first responders when flames rise at sea.

Meet SAFFiR

The walking fire extinguisher goes by the utilitarian name Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot, or SAFFiR for short. And the name is no accident: SAFFiR was designed to limit sailors’ exposure to smoke and flames in ships’ tight confines, keeping them… safer (although, technically, researchers pronounce the name like “sapphire”).

And, as a man-sized hunk of metal and software, it can do things that humans cannot. SAFFiR is loaded with onboard sensors such as infrared stereovision and laser light detectors, which enable it to find its target through thick smoke. It can also walk, open doors and handle the fire hose. It’s also good on its feet: SAFFiR’s whole-body momentum control system ensures he stays upright and functional, even atop rough terrain.

In addition to firefighting, SAFFiR would have other duties such as scanning the ship for leaks and identifying malfunctioning equipment.

“By taking on these time-consuming tasks, SAFFiR could free up sailors for jobs that more fully take advantage of their training and technical skill sets,” Thomas McKenna, program manager for human-robot interaction and cognitive neuroscience at the Office of Naval Research, said in a statement Wednesday.

In a series of experiments conducted in November on a decommissioned naval vessel, SAFFiR identified overheated equipment with its thermal imaging skills, and also extinguished a small fire with a hose — the first bipedal robot to accomplish this task (in a jumpsuit no less). Check out SAFFiR in action:

Making SAFFiR Better

Since this is a long-term research project, SAFFiR won’t be sliding down the fire pole any time soon. First and foremost, the robot is neither fireproof nor is it waterproof — both are kind of important. SAFFiR is also pretty slow and still operates while tethered to control equipment. Scientists plan to continue improving the robot’s speed, intelligence, communication capabilities, battery life and, of course, work on that whole fireproofing detail.

Even with improved intelligence, SAFFiR would still take its orders from a sailor. Although SAFFiR won’t completely replace the need for human intervention during a fire, a robot, rather than a human, would step into the danger zone first, ensuring more sailors return home safely after a voyage.

And while SAFFiR is certainly an incredible advancement in firefighting, we can’t help but think this particular photo looks like something straight out of a sci-fi horror flick…

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John Farley, director of the Naval Research Laboratory’s ex-USS Shadwell, watches as SAFFiR maneuvers down a corridor aboard the ship. (U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams)

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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Halon fire suppressants. Sprinklers.

    Social activism guarantees its own growth by making targeted processes fail, thus requiring more activism. A primary source of halogen in the lower stratosphere, catalytically decomposing ozone, is rocket solid fuel boosters. Regulate everything but.

  • dj

    I don’t think this is a good idea it may turn out like the terminator and kill us all

  • Colin Leitner

    It walks way too slow. And it doesn’t look very strong. Even I have a hard time lifting the firehose filled with water, and it looks like it has a hard time staying on feet to begin with. I think we should spend more money on suits for firefighters- scuba for swimming in fire! 😀

  • Alan

    I recall that there was mostly such criticism about the first automobiles, really crude, noisy, oily, smoky, etc. Why would anyone prefer one to a horse drawn carriage? A silly fad, it will never catch on. I think robots are scary because they fit our definition of a monster. We don’t see them having compassion or mercy. We can’t reason with them. They are machines. If programmed to kill, they will, without a second thought. It is up to us to make sure they are programmed properly. Sadly, most of the money and development on robots is for military applications. Drones, eventually robot soldiers, appear to be the perfect solution for maintaining American military might without risking American lives. The Roman Empire solved that problem with mercenaries, who eventually turned against them.

  • stevlich

    Robotics advances at far less than a snail’s pace, one robot at a time with clumsy movements and capable of doing only one thing. At that rate it’ll take a million years before we have a human/robot hybrid world of ever.

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