Add another eerily lifelike robot to the military's rapidly expanding android army. This one is, of all things, a mechanical firefighter. And not only can it climb ladders like its flesh-and-blood counterparts, it's designed to interact with human handlers in a kind of human/robot bucket brigade.
Developed by the Naval Research Laboratory, the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot - or "SAFFiR"; get it? - will help extinguish fires onboard ships and subs. Those watercraft are particularly at risk from fires, because their cramped quarters can make flames tough to extinguish without posing significant human risk.
SAFFiR, expected to be field tested in 18 months, might mitigate that danger. And it shows off some of the the latest and most impressive breakthroughs in Pentagon-funded robotics technology.
For one thing, SAFFiR is designed to use its mechanized legs and arms like a human would, thanks to sophisticated sensors that provide ongoing environmental feedback and titanium springs that act as "joints" to enable fluid movements. Until recently, most military robots designed for cramped spaces like the quarters of warships or submarines needed to be small. Wheels and treads enabled movement, not pseudo-limbs. (Well, mostly.)
Now, much like a person, SAFFiR will scurry through cramped hallways and climb up and down the endless maze of ladders aboard a ship. The robot will have enough hand coordination to tote fire hoses and throw extinguisher grenades. That kind of precise coordination is also a relatively new accomplishment for military ‘bots. Just last week, Darpa-funded researchers unveiled the first ‘bot capable of performing complex tasks, like unlocking a door, with its own "two hands."
All that's crazy enough. But SAFFiR's interaction with human handlers is where things get really interesting. The robot has an interface that'll allow it to understand and respond to human gestures. The goal, according to a statement from the lab, is for robot and human "to work cohesively as a team." A similar concept is informing the development of other military robots, namely AlphaDog, which'll also boast visual sensors and an interface that can comprehend human commands.
Even without gestures, the ‘bot will be able to adeptly follow its master, because SAFFiR is programmed to track a person's line of sight. So if SAFFiR's captain notices flames over on the left, the ‘bot'll see ‘em at the same time, even in smoky air: SAFFiR's visual sensors incorporate infrared cameras so that the robot can see through poor conditions.
Once fully realized, SAFFiR might be as capable as a human firefighter, without the risk of lost life. But here's hoping SAFFiR is also able to put out fires quickly: The ‘bot's batteries run out after a mere 30 minutes, regardless of whether the flames have been contained.