Robotic Firefighters Could One Day Help Sailors Save Ships

An electromechanical robot could one day save naval vessels without risking human lives.
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An electromechanical robot could one day save naval vessels without risking human lives.

On January 24, 1945, the U.S.S. Shadwell was attacked by three torpedo bombers just south of Siquijor Island in the Philippines. Last fall, almost 70 years after that World War II-era incident, a fire once again raged within the since decommissioned ship. But in this case, researchers intentionally ignited this blaze to test the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR).

SAFFiR is a 5’10”, 143-pound electromechanical robot developed by researchers at Virginia Tech to help the Office of Naval Research (ONR) “evaluate the applications of unmanned systems in damage control and inspections aboard naval vessels,” according to an ONR press release.

“The long-term goal is to keep sailors from the danger of direct exposure to fire,” Dr. Thomas McKenna, ONR program manager for human-robot interaction and cognitive neuroscience, said in the press release

SAFFiR is built to navigate naval ships’ uneven terrain. It’s equipped with a super-human range of motion to manipulate doors and fire hoses. SAFFiR also includes a range of sensors that allows it to see “through the choking black smoke that would deter human firefighters,” CNN reported.

Dr. McKenna explained that advanced designs of SAFFiR would include “enhanced intelligence.” This added intelligence may sound equally fascinating and frightening, but don’t fear a robot mutiny. SAFFiR will still take instructions from sailors stationed at a safe distance from the flames. Dr. McKenna says the researchers are working toward developing human-robot teams, or what he calls “the hybrid force,” with the aim to one day save naval vessels without risking human lives.

Watch the video below to learn more about SAFFiR: