US Navy and Virginia Tech engineers have been developing SAFFiR, the humanoid firefighting robot, for an number of  years now. It looks like SAFFiR is now a few steps further than the initial prototype stage of development as the military division has demonstrated what SAFFiR is capable of doing on board one of their decommissioned ships.

In a series of tests, which where conducted last November, the biped was capable of navigating uneven floors, (something that is usually extremely difficult for humanoid machines), identify equipment using thermal imaging cameras and also handle a fire-hose to extinguish small fires. SAFFiR also had help from a small drone that has been created by Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute.

The drone is an autonomous quadcopter, named ‘DC-21’. Damage Control Technologies for the 21st Century has been designed to be smaller than most commercial models, which can be purchased from retailers.

The drone also uses infrared to detect fires and depth cameras that are similar to Microsoft’s Kinect camera, to map out locations. The drone also has the capability to communicate and relay data to SAFFiR. As it is so small, the battery that fits in the DC-21 drone only lasts for a short period of time, five minutes in fact. The designers are planning to build another version with two large propellers instead of the four small ones that it currently has. This will enable the power source to last up to 30 minutes.

SAFFiR looks a little like DARPA’s ATLAS, although not as menacing. The biped stands at 5-feet-10-inches tall and weighs 143 pounds. It is equipped with infrared and a rotating light detection and ranging (LIDAR) laser, which is used so that SAFFiR is able to make its way through dense smoke.  SAFFiR does have the capability to undertake tasks autonomously, but the Navy’s goal is for people and robots such as SAFFiR to work together, not for SAFFiR to replace sailors.

Does this mean that SAFFiR is ready to go into firefighting action then? No. Although it performed well during the demonstrations last year, it doesn’t mean that SAFFiR is quite ready to be deployed into action just yet.

SAFFiR still needs to be tethered in order to stay upright in its current state, and it’s far too slow to be a first responder in an emergency situation. Not to mention the fact that the current model of SAFFiR is not water or fire proof. The Navy is planning to commission a more advanced design of SAFFiR with “enhanced intelligence, communications capabilities, speed, computing power and battery life for extended applications.”

I kind of thought that a firefighting robot, on board a sea going vessel, would need to have basic requirements such as being able to withstand fire and repel water, but what do I know?

[Image via businessnewsline]