US Navy robot SAFFiR could soon be firefighting on the seven seas

6 Feb 2015

SAFFiR during testing. Image via John F Williams

The US Navy could soon be sending humanoid robots into the battlefield after recent tests proved successful on its firefighting robot.

Known as the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR), the robot has been in development for the last few years, but received its latest showcasing at the recent Naval Future Force Science & Technology Expo in Washington, DC.

Given the mentality of the chain of command in the US military, it might come as a surprise that its latest robot design doesn’t come with laser cannons and rocket launchers, but SAFFiR is much more capable of walking across uneven floors, using thermal imaging to identify overheated equipment, and using a hose to extinguish a small fire.

The 180cm-tall robot weighs about 10 stone (143lbs) and is packed full of various tech, including infrared stereovision and a rotating laser for light detection and ranging (LIDAR) to enable it to see through dense smoke.

Developed by researchers at Virginia Tech with backing from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), SAFFiR will not be alone in its mission to fight fires on blazing navy ships as previous tests had also seen it partner with a small drone developed by Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute that acts as SAFFiR’s eyes and ears from above.

Dr Thomas McKenna, ONR programme manager for human-robot interaction and cognitive neuroscience, said SAFFiR still needs some final tweaks left before it can go fight fires. “We have taken a look at other kinds of sensors that you can put on these robots.

“For instance, a bipedal robot could be configured to take shipboard measurements, scan for corrosion and leaks, and identify changes to the shape of the room from its original configuration. 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.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic