Firefighting Robots Could Help US Navy Snuff Out Fires at Sea

The SAFFiR (short for Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot) humanoid bot was developed to one day help put out fires aboard U.S. Navy ships.

Hose-wielding humanoid robots could one day keep Navy firefighters out of harm's way.

A prototype of an adult-size firefighting bot was unveiled this week at the Naval Future Force Science and Technology Expo in Washington, D.C. Sponsored by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the exposition was the perfect place to show off a futuristic robot equipped to fight fires at sea.

The bot's name is SAFFiR — short for Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot. Standing on two "legs," SAFFiR is about the size of an adult man, measuring 5 feet 10 inches (1.8 meters) tall and weighing about 140 lbs. (64 kilograms). 

The robot has three ways of seeing the world: a stereo camera with two lenses that allow it to see with binocular vision (like a human), a thermal imaging camera that enables it to detect heat and see through smoke, and a laser range finder that allows it to map out the distance between itself and an object. Dexterous enough to hold a fire hose, SAFFiR can both detect and put out a blaze.

Engineering students from the Terrestrial Robotics Engineering and Controls Lab and the Extreme Environments, Robotics & Materials Laboratory at Virginia Tech created the firefighting bot as part of a Navy initiative aimed at helping sailors fight fires at sea. The bot could one day be used to carry out safety inspections aboard a ship, patrol for fires and control fire damage if it detects a blaze.

In the future, every Navy ship that leaves port could have one of these firefighting robots on board, the researchers said.

"It's not going to replace Navy firefighters; it's going to assist Navy firefighters," Viktor Orekhov, a former Virginia Tech doctoral student who helped design and build the bot, said in a statement.

SAFFiR was tested several times before being unveiled to the world this week. In November 2014, the life-size robot carried out a three-day demonstration aboard the USS Shadwell, a decommissioned Navy warship currently anchored off the coast of Mobile, Alabama.

During the demo, SAFFiR was tasked with maneuvering along a slim, low-ceilinged hallway to locate the source of a fire. Without falling or stopping, the robot then had to grasp a fire hose and blast the flames with water. The bot, which was controlled from a distance by a team from Virginia Tech, successfully put out the blaze.

"We have demonstrated a real-world application for humanoid robotsthat no one has done before," said John Seminatore, a master's student in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech who helped create SAFFiR. "Manipulating an empty hose or walking down a hallway is very different than operating in a heat-warped, soot-filled corridor, dragging a hose filled with water."

Prior to the November demo, the engineering students who worked on SAFFiR spent hours aboard the USS Shadwell, preparing the ship for the robot's test. Hundreds more hours were spent testing the bot in a lab.

Eventually, the Virginia Tech team hopes to get its humanoid bot to act autonomously, but for now, it will continue to be tested as a user-operated machine. Even if the bot does one day become autonomous, it will still be necessary for SAFFiR to take remote instruction from sailors and firefighters, the researchers said.

"These robots can work closely with human firefighters without firefighters being directly exposed to steam or heat, fire and smoke," Thomas McKenna, a program manager with the Office of Naval Research, said at the demo in November. Robots may one day patrol ships, scanning for unnatural heat, smoke or other issues, and providing a "constant watch" for onboard dangers that sailors may not be able to detect, he said.

World's First Robot-Staffed Hotel to Open in Japan

What if you could check into a hotel, have your luggage carried to your room and order a coffee — all with help from a team of robots?

The new staff of Japan's Henn-na Hotel may look like this Geminoid F android, developed by Osaka University and ATR.

A new hotel at a theme park in Nagasaki, Japan, hopes to make that dream a reality. The Henn-na Hotel (whose name means "strange hotel") will be partially staffed by androids that work as reception attendants, robot waiters, cleaning staff and a cloakroom attendant, The Telegraph reported.

Developed by Japan's Osaka University and manufactured by the Japanese robotics company Kokoro, many of the "Actroid" robots resemble a young Japanese woman. The bots will be able to speak Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English, make hand gestures, and pull off the somewhat creepy feat of mimicking eye movements, according to The Telegraph.

The android-staffed hotel will be part of a theme park called Huis Ten Bosch, which is modeled after a typical Dutch town. Hotel guests will be able to access their rooms using facial recognition software instead of keys, if they choose.

"We'd like to draw visitors to this setting surrounded by nature by establishing a smart hotel, which could be something we could spread through Japan and the world, a spokeswoman for Huis Ten Bosch told The Telegraph.

If the robot hotel is a success, another one may be opened in 2016, the spokeswoman added.

Room rates at the Henn-na Hotel will start at about $60 U.S. (7,000 yen), but will likely remain well below the rates for the park's other hotels, which start at around $170 to $255 (20,000 to 30,000 yen). The use of robots and renewable energy will help the hotel keep its operating costs down, The Telegraph reported.

For those Luddites who prefer a human touch, the hotel will also employ 10 human staff members.