The date is Nov. 3, 2014. A fire erupts on the ex-USS Shadwell, anchored in Mobile Bay, Alabama. Smoke quickly fills the small room where the fire burns in a metal canister. A tall humanoid robot lumbers down the hall and then senses the blaze with a stereoscopic thermal imaging camera. It picks up a nearby hose and extinguishes the fire before anyone is injured or any equipment is lost.

What’s more dangerous than an out-of-control inferno? One on board a nuclear powered—battleship in hostile waters. Ship fires represent a concatenation of danger. They happen far from civilization…or land, but often spring up enclosed spaces that quickly fill with smoke or fumes, further imperiling fire crews.

It’s a dirty job, perfect for robots. In 2011, the Office of Naval Research, or ONR, began work on a shipboard autonomous fire-fighting robot or SAFFiR to explore ways to help naval crews deal with fires faster but also to decrease chances for injury and death. It looks a bit like the Boston Dynamics Atlas platform but was created by engineers at Virginia Tech specifically for the Navy.

In November, in a series of controlled experiments aboard the ex-USS Shadwell, a decommissioned ship that ONR uses for experiments, ONR tested the first prototype SAFFiR.

“The objectives for the demo on the Shadwell were to show that the robot could walk over a very uneven floor, that it could orient itself to the fire, that it could autonomously handle the hose, operate the hose, aim the hose and suppress the fire, which it succeeded in,” said Tom McKenna, who oversees programs in neuroscience and human-computer interaction at ONR, in a video released Wednesday describing the experiment.

SAFFiR performs those functions in some of the same ways that the Google self-driving car operates, via a light detection and ranging, or LIDAR, rotating laser. A LIDAR uses light in somewhat the same way a ship uses radar to create information about the ship’s surrounding. The system sends a light pulse toward a target. A sensor catches the light as it bounces back, enabling the system to determine the location of the object based on the amount of time that it takes the light to hit the sensor. Today’s LIDAR sensors can send out more than 400,000 laser pulses a second.

Unlike the self-driving car, the SAFFiR also has thermal imaging sensors, which the robot uses to detect fire.

“We can identify the fire and locate its extent. We can measure the temperature field with thermal imaging and extract [a sense of where] flame is from that. We can also sense flames that are outside the visual field by reflections,” McKenna told Defense One.

But wait, there’s more! The program managers say that the robot’s ability to perceive fire and other threats - not to mention its surroundings—could be augmented by placing smart sensors around ships. The sensors would essentially turn the ship into a massive data collecting and transmitting environment. They also experimented with small drones able to navigate tight spaces and pass through smoke to locate fires and instantly send data to the robot and human operators. In essence, because a ship is a controlled environment, engineers could give a robot the ability to sense what’s going on at every square inch throughout, at any time. That could make systems like SAFFiR useful not just for fighting fires but potentially for other onboard repair and maintenance.

It’s an interesting piece of technology that could perform a very important mission, but McKenna says it will take five years before ONR has a viable robot for shipboard applications and another five years of acquisition hurdles to leap over before systems like SAFFiR becomes standard equipment on a ship.  “We have some fundamental issues in robotic mobility that we still have to address, as well as working out the… integration issues,” says McKenna. Some of those issues include getting the robot up shipboard stairs and keeping it upright during ship rolling.

The fact that the robot had to wear rain gear to protect its sensitive battery and perform its duties presents something of an issue. McKenna noted that the system is still but a prototype and will have to be hardened for military use. “For the demonstration, we outfitted the robot in a rain suit to protect against water. To mitigate heat exposure, we will need better ventilation of the electronics and coatings for thermal insulation,” he said.

The effort still won cautious applause from some naval technology watchers. “The basic logic of augmenting sailors’ damage control efforts with a firefighter that’s less susceptible to smoke, toxicity, oxygen-deprivation, and – to a degree – heat makes a lot of sense. But how widely the fleet adopts robots will depend on the cost of procuring and sustaining the systems developed to meet this challenge,” Scott Cheney Peters, president of the Center for International Maritime Security, told Defense One. “Outside of costs, the two keys to firefighting robots’ success will likely be their reliability – no one wants to troubleshoot a complex system with a fire raging – and their ability to smoothly interact with human teammates. Until firefighting is nearly all autonomous, interaction with humans will make the difference between the robots helping rather than hindering damage control efforts.”

Today, the SAFFiR system is remotely like a drone but ONR is working on new ways to interact with it via voice and gesture commands. Right now it can operate for about 30 minutes on one battery. But rapid improvements in battery technology will change that figure. “We could easily reach one hour,” fairly soon, said McKenna.

So the SAFFiR system doesn’t represent the end point in semi-autonomous emergency robots so much as a (jerking, clanking) step forward in advancing the state of the art. It also provides a preview to the Robotics Grand Challenge Finals held by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which will take place in Pomona, California, in June. The Virginia Tech team behind SAFFiR is the same group behind Team VALOR, competing in the Grand Challenge, but the robots are different.

The SAFFiR system will be on display during the Naval Science and Technology Future Force Expo in downtown Washington Feb. 4-5.

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