A fire-fighting robot designed by the U.S. Navy could help protect sailors as they carry out missions on the high seas.

The Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (Saffir) has been in development for several years, and the Navy recently announced the creation of a working prototype.  

Fires are particularly dangerous aboard Naval ships, where cramped quarters can swiftly fill with smoke, causing death and injuries. Marine vessels powered by nuclear engines present additional hazards, as an accident could release nuclear material into the environment.

The Saffir robot utilizes a pair of legs for locomotion, allowing it to easily travel through spaces within ships meant for sailors. Joints within the limbs allow Saffir to travel around ships in rough seas, as decks sway and rock. The mechanical firefighter is the size of a human, standing five feet, 10 inches tall, and weighing in at 143 pounds. Two mechanical hands allow the robot to use doors, and grasp firefighting tools, in much the same manner as a human being.

"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," Thomas McKenna, program manager for human-robot interaction and cognitive neuroscience at the Office of Naval Research (ONR), said.

Because robots do not breathe, and have a nearly limitless tolerance for radiation, mechanical firefighters are ideal for fighting fires aboard military ships. This one also has another advantage over human first responders - a pair or infrared eyes that allow the robot to see through smoke. A laser within a spinning sensor on its face allows Saffir to accurately judge distances to objects, including potential victims of an accident, using light detection and ranging (Lidar).

Between November 3 and 5, 2014, Navy officials carried out a test of Saffir, putting out a fire on the USS Shadwell, a decommissioned Navy ship. The new robot was brought out for public display at the Naval Future Force Science & Technology EXPO in Washington, D.C. on February 4.

"The robot located the fire and sprayed water from the hose. Water blasted the flames," Virginia Tech researchers reported.

Navy researchers designed Saffir to carry out tasks autonomously, but human operators are able to take control of the robot when needed. Such control was maintained throughout the test.

Future advances for the robot could include the additional memory and sensory equipment, adding to capabilities of the mechanical first responder.

"It's not going to replace Navy firefighters, it's going to assist Navy firefighters," Viktor Orekhov, a recent graduate of Virginia Tech, said.

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