U.S. Navy to Test Firefighting, Grenade-Throwing Robot

Wendy Carpenter

It's a firefighter. It's a sailor. It's a lifelike robot about the size of a man able to perform both jobs, with the added ability to toss grenades.

The latest addition to the military's ever-expanding humanlike-robot force is a mechanized firefighter that is able to climb stairs and ladders like a person, but, according to Wired.com," designed to interact with human handlers in a kind of human/robot bucket brigade."

The Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot -- or "SAFFiR" for short -- is in the developmental stages at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Its purpose is to mitigate the dangers of fires onboard military ships and submarines, which can be particularly expensive and hazardous because their close quarters can make flames difficult to extinguish without risking loss of human life.

A situation in late December proved how dangerous fires on ships can be, when firefighters extinguished a massive blaze aboard a docked Russian nuclear submarine as some crew members remained inside, officials told the Associated Press. It took more than a day to contain the fire, and seven crew members were hospitalized after inhaling poisonous carbon monoxide fumes from the blaze.

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If SAFFiR had been aboard, the fire might have been contained more quickly.

The battery-powered robot will be armed with a camera, a gas sensor, and an infrared camera, allowing it to navigate through smoke while maintaining the ability to traverse the tight confines of a ship, even during harsh sea conditions. SAFFiR, expected to be field-tested in 18 months, will also be "capable of manipulating fire suppressors and throwing propelled extinguishing agent technology (PEAT) grenades," the NRL says.

As if that wasn't lifelike enough, the android will also be able to react like a sailor so that it can work as a team with its military counterparts. "The robot 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 NRL says.

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The robot will have to be able to take direction quickly, since its batteries last for only 30 minutes.

Researchers at Virginia Tech and the University of Pennsylvania are also working with the NRL on the project, and the plan is to test SAFFiR in a firefighting situation onboard the ex-USS Shadwell in late September 2013.