Skip to main content

Meet SAFFiR, the Navy’s new humanoid robot firefighter

firefight robot saffir us navy saffir2
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Earlier this week, scientists unveiled a prototype robotic firefighter at the Naval Future Force Science & Technology Expo, revealing details about its successful demonstrations held last fall aboard the USS Shadwell, a decommissioned naval vessel.

The “Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot,” or SAFFiR for short, is a project by the Office of Naval Research that aims to prevent shipboard fires from sending sailors to a watery grave. It’s been in the works for years, and now the Navy is finally ready to show it off.

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

To do this, the SAFFiR is equipped with a boatload of advanced technology. Sensors, including infrared stereovision and a rotating laser for light detection and ranging (LIDAR), enable the humanoid to see through dense smoke. It’s also got hands that can manipulate objects, open doors, and handle a hose.

But seeing through smoke and aiming a hose is just one part of the equation. According to the team who built the bot, the hardest part of the process was designing the robotic equivalent of “sea legs” that allow SAFFiR to stay upright aboard a rollicking ship.

Related: Check out the ‘ambulance drone’ that could one day save your life

“Balancing on any type of terrain that’s unstable –especially for bipedal robots– is very difficult,” said Brian Lattimer, associate professor for mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech. “Whole-body momentum control allows for the robot to optimize the locations of all of its joints so that it maintains its center of mass on uncertain and unstable surfaces.”

It’s still a work in progress at this point, but the team has made some big steps forward in the past few months. Last November, the ONR conducted the first successful test of SAFFiR, during which the robot walked across uneven surfaces, identified what was on fire, grabbed a hose, and extinguished the flames. For this test, a human at a computer console directed the robot, but eventually SAFFiR will do all of these things on its own — hopefully paving the way for a new generation of autonomous disaster response bots.

Drew Prindle
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Drew Prindle is an award-winning writer, editor, and storyteller who currently serves as Senior Features Editor for Digital…
Robots Everywhere: Machines that grow, cook, and serve food
robots everywhere episode 5 robotseverywhere food hpthumb 200724

The cultivation and production of food are what allowed humans to progress from tribes of hunters/gatherers to be able to develop settlements and cities. Planting, growing, harvesting, and preparing food is the basis of our modern civilizations. Now our abilities to do all of these tasks have progressed so far that many of these steps can be done by robots and machines. So what does the future of robotics look like when it intersects with food production? We take a look at the three main areas in which robots are interacting with the process: During the farming stage, during the processing stage, and during the cooking and serving stage.

When it comes to farming and growing our crops, huge advancements in both hardware and software technologies have allowed farmers to use more and more autonomous machines. Companies like John Deere have developed tractors that run without human involvement, using GPS, camera technology, and myriad sensors to help them tend to each individual plant in their field, from planting to fertilizing to harvesting. This allows farmers to get more done with less manpower.

Read more
Robots Everywhere: The promise of humanoid robots
robots everywhere episode 4 humanoidrobots hpthumb 200721

Meet the most human-like robots of ALL TIME | Robots Everywhere

For some reason, we humans seem to be hell-bent on making robots that look like us. One thing is for sure, though: We’ve been making humanoid robots for a long time, and they’re starting to get really good. This is Robots Everywhere -- a show where we chronicle the slow but steady takeover by our future robot overlords, and show you how they’re making their way into practically every facet of modern life

Read more
Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot gives New Zealand sheepdogs a run for their money
Spot sheep dog 1

Previously immune to the threat of techno-replacement (unless you want to count robot pets like Sony’s Aibo), sheepdogs in New Zealand are currently facing competition from the encroaching wave of automation, courtesy of Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot.

A new video shows Spot carrying out a variety of assistive agricultural tasks, including inspecting crops and, yes, herding sheep.

Read more