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Naval Humanoid Fights Fires on Decommissioned Vessel

SAFFiR, the firefighting humanoid, is able to navigate complex spaces, even in thick smoke. (Photo credit: Virginia Tech)
SAFFiR, the firefighting humanoid, is able to navigate complex spaces, even in thick smoke. (Photo credit: Virginia Tech)

Researchers from Virginia Tech revealed more details about their ongoing project with the US Navy: the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR). Speaking at the Naval Future Force Science & Technology EXPO, the researchers discussed the results of recent tests of SAFFiR as it walked on uneven floors, located overheating equipment, and put out small fires onboard the decommissioned USS Shadwell.

“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 Dr. Thomas McKenna, program manager for the Office of Naval Research (ONR). “The long-term goal is to keep Sailors from the danger of direct exposure to fire.”

The two-legged robot is five-foot-ten inches tall and weighs 143 pounds. The researchers say the robot is able to move in ways a human cannot, so that it can robustly navigate the complex spaces on board naval vessel. It uses infrared sensors and LIDAR to navigate through dense smoke.

“Balancing on any type of terrain that’s unstable – especially for bipedal robots – is very difficult,” said Brian Lattimer, associate professor for mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech. “Whole-body momentum control allows for the robot to optimize the locations of all of its joints so that it maintains its center of mass on uncertain and unstable surfaces.”

While SAFFiR can work autonomously, a human operator is always kept in the loop to provide assistance if necessary. In the future, the researchers hope to enhanced SAFFiR’s artificial intelligence software, communications capabilities, speed, computing power, and battery life. They also hope to enable to robot to handle a wider range of duties, such as scanning hulls for corrosion and leaks.

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