The US Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) has launched a fire-fighting robot prototype, called the Shipboard Autonomous Fire-fighting Robot (SAFFiR), at the Naval Future Force Science and Technology EXPO in Washington, US.

Built in collaboration with researchers at Virginia Tech, the two-legged, or bipedal, humanoid robot is designed to move on a ship, control doors and fire hoses, and help sailors with damage control and inspection missions.

ONR human-robot interaction and cognitive neuroscience programme manager Dr Thomas McKenna said: "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.

"The long-term goal is to keep sailors from the danger of direct exposure to fire."

The ONR is currently assessing the applications of unmanned systems in damage control and inspections on naval vessels, further supporting the navy’s science and technology strategy.

The 5ft 10in-high, 143lb humanoid robot is equipped with a super-human range of motion to manoeuvre in complex spaces.

Infrared stereovision and rotating laser for light detection and ranging sensors allow it to see through dense smoke.

Virginia Tech mechanical engineering associate professor Brian Lattimer said: "The robot has the ability to do autonomous tasks but we have a human in the loop to allow an operator to intervene in any type of task that the robot’s doing."

"We set out to build and demonstrate a humanoid capable of mobility aboard a ship."

"For instance, a bipedal robot could be configured to take shipboard measurements, scan for corrosion and leaks, and identify changes to the shape of the room from its original configuration.

"By taking on these time-consuming tasks, SAFFiR could free up sailors for jobs that more fully take advantage of their training and technical skill sets."

Programmed to take precise steps and self-manage hoses, the humanoid is currently controlled through instructions from researchers at a computer console.

A more advanced design is being planned as part of the long-term investigational research programme, which involves using better intelligence, communications capabilities, speed, computing power and battery life for extended applications.

Image: The ONR-backed SAFFiR being tested on USS Shadwell. Photo: courtesy of the US Navy, photo by John F. Williams.