RoboCop may be the stuff of fiction, but what about RoboFireman? If your vessel was on fire would you feel relieved to have a humanoid robot aboard to help you contain and extinguish the blaze?

Through research in human-robot interaction technology and shipboard-based spatial interrogation technology, the Navy is working toward a future in which a Navy firefighter works shoulder-to-shoulder with a humanoid robotic firefighter in discovery, control and damage control of incipient fires.

Recently the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research (LASR) hosted robotics research teams from Virginia Tech and the University of Pennsylvania to demonstrate the most current developments in robotic firefighter design, including fire-hardened materials and algorithms for independent perception and navigation.

The stars of the show were variations on the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot, or SAFFiR. With a sensor suite that includes a camera, gas sensor and stereo infrared (IR) and ultraviolet (UV) cameras to enable it to see through smoke and detect sources of excess heat, bipedal SAFFiR is capable of walking over natural and manmade terrain -- even during pitch and roll conditions of a simulated shipboard sea state.

The video below is a demonstration of the lower body of SAFFiR / THOR walking on unstructured and compliant terrain including rubble and AstroTurf.


At the event, students demonstrated SAFFiR's 'seek-and-find' algorithms for locating a fire emergency, and its competency with skills required for lifting and activing of fire suppression equipment, such as opening a water valve, lifting and walking with a fire hose, and activating a nozzle.

"SAFFiR is being designed to move autonomously throughout a ship to learn ship layout, interact with people, patrol for structural anomalies and handle many of the dangerous firefighting tasks that are normally performed by humans," Dr. Thomas McKenna, managing program officer, ONR Computational Neuroscience and Biorobotics programs, explained in a statement.

For those of us who struggle making ourselves understood to our iPhones, the idea of relying on communication between man and machine in a firefighting situation seems a bit scary. But as you can see in the video below, there have been great strides in human-robot interaction.


Mashable reports that the shipboard firefighting robots will be tested in the field this August, aboard the ex-USS Shadwell, a decommissioned vessel dedicated to firefighting exercises.