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Navy calls on researchers to create firefighting humanoid robot

The U.S. Navy is getting a helping hand from university researchers in its efforts to create a robot that can fight fires onboard its ships.

The Navy is hoping to one day have robots, instead of sailors, take on the dangerous job of tackling onboard fires. To make that happen, it is turning to researchers and students.

The U.S. military’s Office of Naval Research is giving a grant of $600,000 to a Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor to develop motion-planning algorithms for firefighting humanoid robots.

Dmitry Berenson, an assistant professor of computer science and robotics engineering at WPI, will work on the software for the humanoid robot build by engineering students at Virginia Tech for the Navy.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon University also are involved in the project, dubbed SAFFiR, for Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot.

The Office of Naval Research has been working on SAFFIR for the past six years.

The robot, which is 5 feet, 10 inches tall and weights about 140 pounds, also is designed to carry out other onboard tasks, such as basic maintenance work, to free up naval personnel for more complicated tasks.

WPI, which nearly a year ago finished in the top third of competitors in DARPA’s global Robotics Challenge, is expected to work with the Navy to run tests on the robotic firefighter, according to the university.

"By using autonomous humanoids, we’re hoping to reduce the need for Navy personnel who have to perform a whole host of tasks and to also help mitigate the risks to people in fire suppression scenarios," Berenson said in a statement.

The military is hoping to use the humanoid robots to avoid tragedies like the one onboard the USS Miami in May of 2012. The nuclear submarine was drydocked at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, when a fire, which had been started by a shipyard worker, injured seven people, including three firefighters. Because of the extent of the damage to the submarine, the Navy inactivated it.

WPI’s Berenson noted that when working onboard a ship or submarine, the robots will need to be able to move agilely in tight spaces. They also must be able to stay upright while on vessels rocking in rough seas.

He added that WPI’s experience with developing motion planning software will help in building the algorithms that a humanoid robot would need to work onboard a naval ship.

"We could contribute our unique experience with motion planning for humanoid robots, which must perform in complicated scenarios," Berenson said. "Our focus on motion planning for autonomous robots, and not just those that are controlled by tele-operation, also helped us secure the grant."

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