Navy Enlisting CHARLI's Little Bro SAFFiR as a Robot Fire Fighter

The Office of Naval Research has announced that they're developing SAFFiR, a humanoid firefighting robot designed to operate aboard ships that looks not entirely unlike the robot in the picture above. And as you've probably already guessed from the rAnDoMLy weIRD caPITaLIZAtiON, it's going to be developed in partnership with Virginia Tech's RoMeLa, already famous (at least, around here) for their CHARLI humanoid.

Here's NRL's plan for SAFFiR:

Click here to embiggenify.

And just for reference, here's CHARLI:

So let's just go down the list here, shall we? SAFFiR (which stands for Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot) will be able to do the following:

  • SAFFiR is designed with enhanced multi-modal sensor technology for advanced navigation and a sensor suite that includes a camera, gas sensor, and stereo IR camera to enable it to see through smoke.
  • SAFFiR's upper body will be capable of manipulating fire suppressors and throwing propelled extinguishing agent technology (PEAT) grenades.
  • The robot will be capable of walking in all directions, balancing in sea conditions, and traversing obstacles like ladders.
  • SAFFiR will have multimodal interfaces that will enable the robot to track the focus of attention of the human team leader, as well as to allow the robot to understand and respond to gestures, such as pointing and hand signals. Where appropriate, natural language may also be incorporated, as well as other modes of communication and supervision.

The reason that SAFFIR is a humanoid (and not something far easier to manage like a quadruped) is that it's designed to be able to fight fires aboard ships, which means that it's going to need to be able to climb up and down very steep staircases and ladders. For better or worse, it's only really feasible to do that with a bipedal humanoid with arms. However, getting a bipedal humanoid to pull off a trick like that is not going to be easy. It won't be easy to do in a lab setting, much less in a ship that's on fire, dark, hot, smokey, and probably rolling and pitching on ocean waves. And if we assume that SAFFIR won't be perfect (which is a safe assumption, I'd say), it'll have to be able to handle running into things and falling and getting up again without significantly damaging itself, all in overheated environments with poor sensor data.

Oh, and of course, there's one other little reason why SAFFIR is a humanoid. From the Navy:

A humanoid-type robot was chosen because it was deemed best suited to operate within the confines of an environment that was deigned for human mobility and offered opportunity for other potential warfighting applications within the Navy and Marine Corps.

Uhhuh. So maybe that Terminator pic I used up top isn't so crazy, eh?

At this stage, SAFFIR seems like a very ambitious program, and we like ambition. And since the Navy is involved, hopefully the ambition will be backed up by a giant pile of cash, and we'll see a grenade tossing firefighting robot by September of 2013. But don't get your hopes up: they've got a lot of work to do.

[ NRL ] via [ Danger Room ]

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