Fighting Shipboard Fires with Artificial Intelligence? U.S. Navy Tests the Possibilities

The Naval Research Laboratory's Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR) is a humanoid-type robot being designed for shipboard firefighting. Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

Shipboard fires present crews with unique challenges that are often limited to the capabilities of the human body.  With that in mind, scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) have been working to develop an autonomous human-like robot that could help fight fires on board ships.

The firefighting robot, called the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR), is being designed to move autonomously throughout a ship, interact with people, and fight fires, handling many of the dangerous firefighting tasks that are normally performed by humans.

Virginia Tech and the University of Pennsylvania are working with NRL on the firefighting robot project. NRL's firefighting robot will be a follow-on version to the existing Virginia Tech CHARLI-L1 robot, pictured here. Photo: Virginia Tech

The robot will be designed with advanced multi-modal sensor technology for navigation that will allow it to maneuver well in the narrow passages and ladderways unique to ships and a sensor suite that includes a camera, gas sensor, and stereo IR camera for better visibility in smoky or low light conditions.  And, like a sure-footed sailor, the robot will be capable of walking in all directions, balancing in heavy sea conditions, and traversing obstacles.

In addition to its maneuverability, the robots upper body will be capable of manipulating fire suppressors and throwing PEAT grenades for up to 30 minutes of firefighting through stored battery power.

Another key element of the SAFFiR development is to allow damage control personnel and the robot to work cohesively with human team members. The Navy Center for Applied Research in Artificial Intelligence (NCARAI) is developing the algorithms that will allow autonomous mobility and decision making by the robot. To enable natural interaction with a human team leader, 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 it 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.

Researchers from Virginia Tech and University of Pennsylvania are also working with NRL on the project. They plan to test the firefighting robot in a realistic firefighting environment onboard the ex-USS Shadwell, the world’s unique fire test ship based Mobile Alabama, in late September 2013.

Right now the SAFFiR is being developed solely for use on Navy and Marine Corps combatants so don’t expect to see one of these guys show up on your vessel any time soon. But hey, we can dream.