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U.S. Navy to test humanoid robotic firefighters

Sharon Gaudin | April 2, 2014
Autonomous robots expected to communicate and work with sailors.

The Navy also will test a sensor mounted on a quadrotor, a miniature helicopter designed to fly through a ship, looking for victims and the source of the fire.

The robots already have some autonomy and can make decisions about taking steps and moving their joints, McKenna said. However, a human will still supervisor the robot and will control the machine from a safe distance and make decisions about whether the robot is ready to take on its next task.

"I don't think of it as full autonomy," he said. "I think of it as making them more intelligent so they can work with people."

The focus, he said, is on providing the robot with enough intelligence to carry on natural language dialog with humans and to understand context, intent and goals.

"We're really working toward having a robot that can work closely with people," said McKenna. "That's the way firefighting teams work. Typically, there's a nozzle man in front, which the robot will be here. We want to enable that same interaction. We want the robot to operate like it's a sailor."

He also noted that firefighting robots onboard a ship need to be humanoid-shaped because robots with wheels or tracks wouldn't be able to move around the ship.

"In the compartments, the doorways have a sill that might be as high as 9 inches tall, so you can't have a wheel or tracked robot move through the spaces," he said. "You need a humanoid form factor because all the spaces -- doorways, stairs, hallways -- are all designed with the human in mind. Instead of having specialized robots that can work in this little space or that little space, we'll have a robot that can work in all spaces of the ship."

The humanoid robots, though, might be getting a different kind of robotic help.

McKenna said this summer teh Navy also will test robotic nozzles with short hoses attached to a wall on the ship. The nozzles are designed to autonomously aim and shoot water at a fire.

Some technologies, like the autonomous nozzles, are expected to be adopted by the Navy in the near future, though autonomous humanoid robots could still be what McKenna describes as a "ways off."

The U.S. military has been doing wide-ranging research on ways to take advantage of robots.

Last fall, DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, held the second test in a three-part contest to see which academic, government or commercial team can build the best humanoid robot system to use in search and rescue environments.

In October, the U.S. Army evaluated self-driving, machine gun-toting robots that might someday carry soldier's gear, transport wounded soldiers to safety, and provide support to troops engaged in firefight with the enemy.


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