Video by the U.S. Department of the Navy's Office of Naval Research
Have you ever been on a ship that's on fire?" asked U.S. Navy veteran Dominique Pineiro as he stood in a narrow hallway on the decommissioned USS Shadwell. "It's terrifying. … That's a fact."
The dangers are many: Weapons, ammunition, and ordnance are on board. Spaces are tight and crowded. And unlike in a building fire, occupants cannot go down to escape. They must go up, which is problematic because heat rises, too.
Mere feet away from where Pineiro stood, a group of Virginia Tech College of Engineering students quietly prepped a prototype humanoid robot. Developed by Tech for the Office of Naval Research, SAFFiR—short for Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot—was about to make history aboard the Shadwell, now used to test new shipboard-firefighting techniques in Mobile Bay, Alabama.
In November 2014—during a five-minute demo that was four years and $4.5 million in Navy funding in the making—the robot, standing 5 feet, 10 inches tall and weighing about 140 pounds, walked down a hallway, grasped a hose in one claw-like hand, and turned and used thermal imaging to locate a burning fire. As the robot squeezed its claw, water blasted the flames.
"And that is that. Nicely done," said John Seminatore, a master's degree student in mechanical engineering, at the demo's conclusion. His teammates cheered, as did their hosts from the Office of Naval Research and the U.S. Navy.
The Navy foresees a future—decades off, but tangible—in which every ship has a robot as one of several high-tech firefighting tools for its sailors. At the same time that SAFFiR was being tested, students from Carnegie Mellon University were testing a quad-copter drone that would serve as a damage scout for sailor firefighters. A future version of the copter would share fire and damage data with not only sailor firefighters, but SAFFiR also.
"These robots can work closely with human firefighters without firefighters being directly exposed to steam or heat, fire, and smoke," said Thomas McKenna, a program manager with the Office of Naval Research, adding that future incarnations of SAFFiR may provide a "constant watch" against dangers.
"The students at Virginia Tech put forth a superb effort in developing the SAFFiR robot," said John Farley, director of fire-test operations for the U.S. Navy Research Lab on the Shadwell and co-investigator for the SAFFiR program. "I have been truly amazed with their demonstrated drive, determination, and wherewithal to conceptualize solutions for the technological hurdles that they had to overcome."
The effort also took great patience and improvisation. Real-world robots aren't Hollywood robots. Even getting a robot to walk upright on a straight and level floor is challenging, and the Shadwell presented maddening obstacles because heat from test fires have buckled the ship's floors. SAFFiR's short path slanted away from the robot at a steep decline, making balance retention a constant battle.
The robot was loosely attached to a gimbal in these demonstrations, so that a misstep wouldn't become a full crash to the floor. As well, the robot did not have armoring or protective covering. Those materials are under development. Instead, SAFFiR wore body-length, store-bought rain gear to protect it from damage. Over its hands, the robot wore makeshift, flexible gloves fashioned by students. After all, water, soot, and smoke do not mix with electronics.
"Manipulating an empty hose or walking down a hallway is very different from operating in a heat-warped, soot-filled corridor, dragging a hose filled with water," said Seminatore, a U.S. Air Force veteran.
The robot's "eyesight" comes from a combination of three things: a stereo camera, stereo thermal imaging to see through smoke and detect heat, and a laser rangefinder for accurate mapping. SAFFiR walks on two feet and has two arms. The robot is made mostly of aluminum, much of which was cut and shaped by the students at Goodwin Hall. Intelligence also is a major factor: SAFFIR is "learning" to stay upright on uneven terrain even when shoved from behind—which the students did, during the hundreds of hours they spent fine-tuning the robot's balance. The chest cavity is a box of wires, comptrollers, and motherboards, all in a protective metal shell.
"It's not going to replace Navy firefighters—it's going to assist Navy firefighters," said Viktor Orekhov, who finished a mechanical engineering doctorate at Tech in December 2014.
Once SAFFiR located the fire, its claw-like hand directed the water toward the blaze.
Orekhov was one of more than a dozen students from two Department of Mechanical Engineering labs, the Terrestrial Robotics Engineering and Controls Lab (TREC) and the Extreme Environments, Robotics, and Materials Laboratory (ExtReMe), who built SAFFiR. TREC handled the robot's construction, while ExtReMe handled all visioning systems. Both teams included students from across the College of Engineering.
The project was led at Virginia Tech by Brian Lattimer, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, with support from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Los Angeles, where Dennis Hong—a robotics professor formerly with Virginia Tech—now works.
"I have so much pride and respect for these students, whose passion, hard work, and intellect produced an awesome robot that is like something out of science fiction," said Lattimer, who founded the ExtReMe lab. "I know it's an achievement they'll never forget, and I'm thrilled I could share it with them."
"The month or so leading up to the final SAFFiR demo was probably the roughest part of the project," said Joseph Starr, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering who worked on the robot's thermal infrared visuals. "Most of us were working long days and weekends to try to help ensure the SAFFiR demo turned out great."
Had the demo failed, with the robot unable to walk or find its mark, "there was no future in the project," said Seminatore. "The demo required [us] to develop new techniques and technologies in areas that weren't our traditional strengths. The integration challenge alone on such a complicated system is more than most laboratories deal with."
SAFFiR is, of course, a prototype. It is user-operated now—students sat near where the robot walked, punching in orders to a keyboard and watching what SAFFiR was "seeing"—but long-range plans call for the robot to operate autonomously, with its own onboard power systems and computing power. Mobility and automation also will be improved. "We want the robot to go up stairs and over knee-knockers [the barriers in ship doorways] without falling. We also want to automate tasks, such as detecting and grabbing the fire hose," said Seminatore.
Even when able to operate on its own, SAFFiR will take remote instruction from sailors.
Onboard fires may well be terrifying, as Piniero said, but thanks to the vision of Virginia Tech's students and faculty and the Navy—not to mention SAFFiR's—the threat of future flames may be dampened.