Firefighting Robot Prepares To Walk Through Flames

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The ultimate Navy Seal may end up being a humanoid robot that can carry heavy equipment, interact with officers and head straight into a face-melting fire without hesitation.

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The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot, SAFFiR for short, has been in the works for several years as a safety tool for Navy ships. Recently the advanced bot was brought out for a collaborative demonstration with researchers from Virginia Tech and the University of Pennsylvania, according to the lab.

I love a good robotic display, and it looks like SAFFiR delivered. The bot is designed to learn a ship’s layout, move around autonomously below deck and stay upright even when a vessel is pitching and rolling. Built-in sensors allow it to see through smoke.

Students from the university teams demonstrated complex algorithms that got the robot walking over both manmade and natural terrain, the lab said in a press release. The teams worked on tech to steer the robot to an open flame while avoiding obstacles. They also demoed an artificial muscle that would help it lift equipment, walk with a fire hose and activate a nozzle.

Meanwhile, Navy researchers developed a lightweight resin that can be molded to any shape and resist temperatures up to 500 degrees Celsius (932 degrees F). Later this year the robotic teams plan to do trials aboard a full-scale fire test ship in Mobile, Ala.

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A wild blaze in Houston earlier this week brought us a narrow escape (video) and a reminder of how fast fire can spread. The Navy is working on making SAFFiR an agile robot, but it’s going to be hard to beat that death-defying construction worker on timing.

Photo: Virginia Tech robotics research student Mike Hopkins nudges the Navy’s firefighting robot while it stands on a simulated ship platform. Credit: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory/Jamie Hartman.