We're all familiar with the Triple D's of robotics: Dull, Dirty, and Dangerous. That third D, the dangerous one, is arguably where robots have found their most valuable niche, at least when it comes to protecting humans from things that are, you know, dangerous. Like bombs. And now, fires!

Howe and Howe Technologies have plenty of experience building building unmanned tracked monstrosities, but this little guy, named Thermite, is designed to save you from fires as opposed to beat you into a bloody pulp.

The reason why we need robots like this is because humans, in general, are soft and squishy and don't react well to being close to fires, especially the kind of fires that involve exploding fuel, exploding chemicals, exploding nuclear waste, and other exploding things. Thermite, which can pump up to 600 gallons per minute of whatever firefighting flavor you like, is designed to get way up in there and put fires out without any concern for its own personal safety, likely since it's not a person. It is driven around by a person, though, meaning that it's more of a tool for firefighters than a replacement for them.

A shiny new Thermite will run you just under $100,000. This seems kinda spendy, but you could buy eight Thermites for the cost of just one shiny new firetruck, which I guess makes it a pretty good deal.

[ Howe and Howe ] via [ Danger Room ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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