Some day, if there's a fire on a U.S. naval ship, a humanoid robot may rush in to put it out.
That's the vision coming out of the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research, which will host a test of robotic firefighters this summer.
Firefighting robots would take on high-risk tasks, such as going into an intensely hot and smoky environment, that a human sailor would normally have to do.
"People can only stand relatively short periods of time directly fighting the fire because of the heat, the radiation, the smoke and the steam," said Thomas McKenna, program officer in the Office of Naval Research's Warfighter Performance Department in the Human-Robot Interaction Division. "A firefighter during a shipboard fire may only be able to be exposed for 15 minutes. The idea is to get around those human limitations."
McKenna said a specific date hasn't been set for the test but it's likely to be in August.
The Navy will be working with the two-legged Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR), which was built by scientists at Virginia Tech, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Pennsylvania. Two different versions of the SAFFiR will be tested -- one an approximately 5-foot-tall machine with a basic set of legs and a simple control mechanism, and another 6-foot-tall robot with more advanced legs that should be capable of more robust locomotion, according to McKenna.
During the test, the robots will need to balance on a boat, turn valves, find, pick up and drag a fire hose and then turn the water on the fire, using its vision system to track the fire and search for victims.
The demo also will test new sensors that have been designed to "see" through smoke. The robots also will have stereo, infrared and laser scanning sensors.
In May 2012, a fire aboard a nuclear submarine, the USS Miami, injured seven people, including three shipyard firefighters. The sub was drydocked at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. Unable to afford to make the repairs, the government was forced to inactivate the submarine. A shipyard worker admitted to setting the fire.
"In the USS Miami fire, smoke was an impediment to locating the source of the fire," McKenna said. "We've developed imaging technology to see through the smoke to find doorways and flames so the robot can navigate through the smoke."
The Navy also will test a sensor mounted on a quadrotor, a miniature helicopter designed to fly through a ship, looking for victims and the source of the fire.
The robots already have some autonomy and can make decisions about taking steps and moving their joints, McKenna said. However, a human will still supervisor the robot and will control the machine from a safe distance and make decisions about whether the robot is ready to take on its next task.
"I don't think of it as full autonomy," he said. "I think of it as making them more intelligent so they can work with people."
The focus, he said, is on providing the robot with enough intelligence to carry on natural language dialog with humans and to understand context, intent and goals.
"We're really working toward having a robot that can work closely with people," said McKenna. "That's the way firefighting teams work. Typically, there's a nozzle man in front, which the robot will be here. We want to enable that same interaction. We want the robot to operate like it's a sailor."
He also noted that firefighting robots onboard a ship need to be humanoid-shaped because robots with wheels or tracks wouldn't be able to move around the ship.
"In the compartments, the doorways have a sill that might be as high as 9 inches tall, so you can't have a wheel or tracked robot move through the spaces," he said. "You need a humanoid form factor because all the spaces -- doorways, stairs, hallways -- are all designed with the human in mind. Instead of having specialized robots that can work in this little space or that little space, we'll have a robot that can work in all spaces of the ship."
The humanoid robots, though, might be getting a different kind of robotic help.
McKenna said this summer teh Navy also will test robotic nozzles with short hoses attached to a wall on the ship. The nozzles are designed to autonomously aim and shoot water at a fire.
Some technologies, like the autonomous nozzles, are expected to be adopted by the Navy in the near future, though autonomous humanoid robots could still be what McKenna describes as a "ways off."
The U.S. military has been doing wide-ranging research on ways to take advantage of robots.
Last fall, DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, held the second test in a three-part contest to see which academic, government or commercial team can build the best humanoid robot system to use in search and rescue environments.
In October, the U.S. Army evaluated self-driving, machine gun-toting robots that might someday carry soldier's gear, transport wounded soldiers to safety, and provide support to troops engaged in firefight with the enemy.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is email@example.com.
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