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The US Navy's robot SAFFiR is getting closer to fighting fires at sea

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And it has a drone for a partner

John F. Williams

The US Navy has unveiled a prototype of its Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR). The last time we saw SAFFiR, it wasn't much more than an aluminum core and two legs, but now it looks more like the futuristic firefighting humanoid it originally promised to be.

The robot is 5 feet, 10 inches tall and weighs 143 pounds

"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," Office of Naval Research program manager Thomas McKenna said yesterday at the Naval Future Force Science & Technology Expo. "The longterm goal is to keep sailors from the danger of direct exposure to fire."

SAFFiR, which was developed by researchers at Virginia Tech, stands five-foot-10 inches tall and weighs 143 pounds. Infrared stereovision sensors and a rotating laser allow the robot to see through dense smoke. Unlike DARPA's Atlas robot, SAFFiR can't stand without a tether, but it is capable of taking measured steps and handling a fire hose. For now, those movements come at the instruction of human controllers.

saffir-robot

During a test trial in November, SAFFiR worked in conjunction with a small drone, Engadget reports. The quadcopter, DC-21, uses infrared sensors and cameras to detect fires and map out the topography of an area, which it can then communicate to the robot.

The Navy is working on creating more advanced sensors for SAFFiR, as well as improving its speed, intelligence, and communication abilities. The drone's creators also plan on improving the battery life of DC-21, which currently tops out at five minutes.

The ultimate goal is for SAFFiR to work in tandem with Navy officers, not replace them. "We're working toward human-robot teams," McKenna said. "It's what we call the hybrid force: humans and robots working together."