Called SAFFiR, the Navy's humanoid robot prototype is designed to walk on uneven surfaces, use thermal imaging to locate overheated equipment, and operate a hose to extinguish fires aboard naval vessels.

SAFFiR, which stands for Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot, stands 5 feet 10 inches and weighs 143 pounds. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) unveiled a prototype of the bipedal robot on February 4 at the Naval Future Force Science & Technology EXPO. The Navy is currently evaluating the effectiveness of robots, including bipedal and and aerial drones (i.e. micro-flyers), to conduct inspections and perform damage control of naval vessels. SAFFiR is part of an ongoing effort to develop a humanoid robot capable of fire suppression.

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In this ONR video, SAFFiR can be seen in action aboard the USS Shadwell, a decommissioned Navy Vessel.

"We set out to build and demonstrate a humanoid capable of mobility aboard a ship, manipulating doors and fire hoses, and equipped with sensors to see and navigate through smoke," noted ONR team member Thomas McKenna in a statement. "The long-term goal is to keep sailors from the danger of direct exposure to fire."

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For the demo, the researchers evaluated the bot's ability to walk on uneven surfaces, autonomously orient itself to the fire, operate the hose, and ultimately suppress the fire. With the help of operators and a balance line, it largely succeeded.

To help it in its duties, SAFFiR is equipped with a number of sensors, including infrared vision and a rotating laser light for detection and ranging (LIDAR) which allow it to see through dense smoke.

Currently, SAFFiR takes its instructions from a team of researchers operating a computer console. It has the ability to perform autonomous tasks, but humans are currently kept in the loop to allow operators to intervene as it performs its tasks.

As the video suggests, the Navy still has a long way to go before SAFFiR can capably walk on its own. Getting two-legged robots to balance on any type of terrain or unstable surface is exceptionally difficult.

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Which makes me wonder if this is truly the best approach for disaster response? Wouldn't it be smarter to develop something with wheels, or something more bug-like?

But as team member Brian Lattimer notes, "I think robots are well suited to be sent into those environments. Bipedal humanoid robots are particularly good for those applications because even in the tight confined conditions that you might have inside structures, these types of robots can be designed to manoeuvre in those conditions."

[ ONR ]