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Introducing SAFFiR, the US Navy-developed fire-fighting robot

A fire at sea is no laughing matter. Firefighters are forced to battle the flames in heavy suits, breathing apparatus and equipment, in enclosed spaces filled with smoke, heat, toxic fumes and exposed electrical wires.

That’s why the US Navy is developing a line of creepily human-like androids in order to combat fire on board ships, dubbed the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR).

Two designs for the robots will be tested this summer aboard a decommissioned amphibious landing ship called the ex-USS Shadwell that the navy routinely sets alight to test ship-bound fire suppression systems. The SAFFiR robots, designed by researchers at UCLA, the University of Pennsylvania, and Virginia Tech, will use the same firefighting equipment as their human counterparts, and will be sent into the most dangerous and inaccessible fires.

They will be expected to perform a number of different tasks - turning valves, picking up and dragging a fire hose and jetting water on the fire. The bot is also designed to learn a ship's layout, move around autonomously below deck and even packs built-in sensors allow it to see through thick smoke.

The SAFFiR robots would also be able to function in much higher temperatures than existing humanoid robotic experiments. This is because the engineers "have developed a class of light-weight, high temperature polyetheretherketone (PEEK)-like phthalonitrile-resin that can be molded to any shape and remain strong at temperatures up to 500 degrees Celsius," or 932 degrees Fahrenheit.

At present, scientists are just working on getting the things to stand up straight.

"This research focuses on the integration of spatial orientation and the shipboard mobility capabilities of future shipboard robots," said Dr. Thomas McKenna, managing program officer, ONR Computational Neuroscience and Biorobotics programs.

"The goal of this research is to develop the mutual interaction between a humanoid robotic firefighter and the rest of the firefighting team."

Designing an anthropomorphic robot to work at sea has its own unique set of challenges. The SAFFiR robots are designed to remain standing “even under the most abrupt changes to platform pitch and roll”, meaning they could help combat fires even in rough seas.

"The LASR facility, with its unique simulated multi-environments and state-of-the-art labs allows us to 'test out' our ideas before we go to the field." Schultz said. "In essence, our facility gives us a cost saving method for testing concepts and ideas before we go to the expense of field trials."

One of the designs features a robot that stands about 5ft (1.5m) tall, while the second, ore advanced design is a little taller.

The robots will also be equipped with basic sensory input.

"In dark or smoke occluded and noisy environments found in shipboard firefighting conditions, tactile feedback—touch—is an important form of communication between human firefighters," said John Farley, project officer for the ex-USS Shadwell.

"Moving forward, the team will integrate NRL's human-robot interaction technology with the SAFFiR platform so that there is a greater focus on natural interaction with naval firefighters."

While SAFFiR still has some way to go before being deployed in the field, other robots have been garnering increasing attention from the media, governments and blue chip tech companies in the past year.

Web giant Google made headlines back in December for its acquisition of military robot-maker Boston Dynamics (opens in new tab). The firm’s robots have astounded the world with their uncannily lifelike movements and ability to remain standing even when kicked hard from the side.

Meanwhile it was announced that Switzerland will host the first (opens in new tab)Cybathlon (opens in new tab), an Olympics designed specifically for bionic athletes, in 2016.

Paul has worked as an archivist, editor and journalist, and has a PhD in the cultural and literary significance of ruins. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, The BBC, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and Discover Magazine, and he was previously Staff Writer and Journalist at ITProPortal.