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WPI Robotics Team to Train Firefighting Humanoid Robot

WPI professor Dmitry Berenson (far right) with researchers (from left) Will Pryor, Yu-Chi Lin, and Andreas Orthey are developing motion planning algorithms for firefighting robots aboard Navy ships. (Photo credit: WPI)

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) professor Dmitry Berenson, PhD, has received nearly $600,000 from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to develop motion planning algorithms for humanoid robots designed to fight fires aboard Navy ships.

With the award, Dr. Berenson, assistant professor of computer science and robotics engineering at WPI, will develop software for a firefighting robot built by Virginia Tech engineering students. The project has also been supported by University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon University robotics teams. Dubbed SAFFiR (Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot), the robot is designed to fight fires and perform other maintenance tasks. SAFFiR, which stands 5 foot 10 inches tall and weighs about 140 pounds, was put through an initial firefighting exercise on a ship in fall 2014 and will undergo more specialized tests this year with WPI’s help.

Thomas McKenna, PhD, a program officer for ONR, said the program was developed six years ago to support Navy personnel. “Substantial losses occur when you have a major fire on a ship and can’t suppress it at an early stage,” said McKenna, who added that ships often carry ordnance and other flammable systems.

Naval officials also noted that it can be difficult to keep sailors up to date on resource training, but that a robot could be continually reprogrammed with the latest processes.

The SAFFiR humanoid firefighting robot aboard the USS Shadwell. (Photo credit: Virginia Tech)

Berenson said he believes WPI was chosen for this project because of its leadership in motion planning research.  “Our focus on motion planning for autonomous robots, and not just those that are controlled by tele-operation, also helped us secure the grant.”

Berenson said humanoid robots are not particularly adept at moving in constrained quarters such as a Navy submarine, where they may have to navigate tight corners and stay upright despite rocking decks.

With that in mind, WPI is testing its algorithms in a simulation of a complex, constrained environment using a virtual model of the SAFFiR robot. The team can plan a variety of movements for the robot and then see if it is able to walk correctly or if it falls down.

Later this year, the WPI team will test its algorithms in the actual robot in controlled conditions within a ship environment mock-up at Virginia Tech. The robot will walk up stairs and perform other locomotion tasks “to ensure the algorithms are generating the correct motion,” Berenson said.

The SAFFiR robot during a firefighting exercise aboard the USS Shadwell. (Photo credit: Virginia Tech)

In November 2014, Virginia Tech engineering students conducted a three-day demo  aboard the USS Shadwell, a decommissioned US Navy landing ship docked in Mobile Bay, Alabama. This culminated in an exercise that positioned the SAFFiR robot in front of a fire. At that time, engineering students said the tethered robot managed to locate and walk toward the fire, grab a fire hose, and blast the flames with water.

With the advanced motion capabilities provided by WPI’s algorithms, Virginia Tech’s robotics leaders hope the robot will demonstrate even greater capabilities.

“The combination of a whole body controller developed by Virginia Tech and the WPI planning software will allow the robot to conduct more complex motions for navigating through the ship and effectively manipulating complex objects like firefighting hoses,” said Brian Lattimer, PhD, affiliate professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech and vice president of research and development at Jensen Hughes, who advised students in the 2014 demo.

Joining Dr. Berenson on the WPI research team are undergraduate Will Pryor, graduate student Yu-Chi Lin, and post-doctoral fellow Andreas Orthey. To see SAFFiR in action go to