Robot Firefighter Could Save Lives at Sea


A new firefighting robot has recently been unveiled which could save many lives at sea. The U.S. Navy has been developing a prototype of a humanoid that can move aboard a ship and manipulate firefighting equipment. As part of a program called Damage Control Technologies for the 21st Century, the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR) is designed to keep Sailors out of harm’s way in an emergency.

The robot will be a major new asset to the U.S. Navy. It will allow for a faster, safer response to fires and other dangerous situations on board a ship. It will also decrease the need for large teams of Sailors to put themselves in danger.

SAFFiR has already shown that it is up to the task. In tests, it has walked on uneven surfaces, identified overheated equipment with its thermal imaging capabilities, and used a hose to extinguish a small fire. While the robot is designed to perform autonomous tasks, tests have involved an element of human control so that the operator can intervene in any task the robot carries out.

Eventually, the hope is that SAFFiR will be a part of human-robot teams. It can detect dangerous situations including fires and gas leaks, send updated information to human firefighters, and respond to instructions to put out fires. It is designed to operate in cooperation with human operators working a safe distance away from a dangerous situation.

The prototype was developed by researchers at Virginia Tech in cooperation with the Office of Naval Research. They are very pleased with the success of their efforts. SAFFiR has superhuman range of motion, infrared, and light detecting capabilities. It can see through dense smoke better than its human counterparts.

The new robot firefighter has a sophisticated balancing system which will enable it to carry out its life saving purpose at sea.The development of the balancing system is the most cruical and difficult aspect of the design process for the team SAFFiR features a system of whole-body momentum control. According to Brian Lattimer, associate professor for mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, this enables it to “optimize the locations of all of its joints so that it maintains its center of mass.

The prototype is also proving useful in the Navy’s efforts to evaluate other uses for similar devices. Researchers are exploring the possibilities of creating similar robots as well as expanding on SAFFiR’s capabilities. Some of the possible improvements include enhanced intelligence, communications, speed, and extended battery life. Similar robots could be equipped with sensors to take measurements and check for leaks. This could free Sailors for jobs better suited for their level of training and skills.

All of the research and testing going on is only a first step in the process of introducing SAFFiR to its human counterparts. While it has excelled in tests, the robot firefighter is not quite ready to save lives on a ship at sea. It is not yet fully water- and fire-proof. However, results are promising and researchers are hopeful that SAFFiR and other humanoids like it will be ready to join the ranks soon.

By Kirstin Pinto


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