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Meet the Navy's firefighting robot

SAFFiR walks across uneven floors, using thermal imaging to spot and tackle fire.

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Topic: Innovation
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1 of 7 U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released

The US Navy has showcased a prototype fire-fighting robot.

In a series of experiments in November the Shipboard Autonomous Fire-fighting Robot (or SAFFiR) was able to walk (admittedly slowly) across uneven floors, employed thermal imaging to identify overheated equipment, and used a hose to extinguish a small fire aboard the USS Shadwell, a decommissioned Navy vessel.

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2 of 7 U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released

SAFFiR, a five-foot-10-inch, 143-pound humanoid robot developed by researchers at Virginia Tech, is helping the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to evaluate the use of such technologies for damage control and inspections aboard naval vessels. The project has been running for five years.

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3 of 7 U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released

Details of the robot and the experiments were revealed at the Naval Future Force Science & Technology EXPO event in Washington DC, along with a video that also showed a drone (above) being used to spot fires.

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4 of 7 U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released

Above is the Naval Research Laboratory's ex-USS Shadwell -- a decommissioned Navy dock landing ship that serves as the Navy's full-scale damage control research, development, test and evaluation platform. Moored in Mobile Bay, Alabama, the ship is regularly set ablaze in controlled demonstrations to test firefighting technologies, tactics and procedures.

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5 of 7 U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released

"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," said Dr Thomas McKenna, ONR programme manager for human-robot interaction and cognitive neuroscience. "The long-term goal is to keep sailors from the danger of direct exposure to fire."

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6 of 7 U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released

Sensors, including infrared stereovision and a rotating laser for light detection and ranging (LIDAR), allow the robot to see through smoke. It can take measured steps and handle hoses on its own, but currently takes instructions from researchers.

Future design blueprints include equipping the robot with enhanced intelligence, communications capabilities and battery life. But even a smarter version of the robot would work with a human team. "We're working toward human-robot teams," McKenna said. "It’s what we call the hybrid force: humans and robots working together."

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7 of 7 Image: DARPA

Last month the R&D arm of the Department of Defense unveiled the latest version of its humanoid robot (above). Dubbed 'Atlas Unplugged', it's part of a project to develop robots that could respond to natural and man-made disasters.

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