Virginia Center for Autonomous Systems

Fire Fighting Robots

You can’t see because of the smoke. Obstacles block your path, and dangers surround you. You don’t know where the fire is, but it could sink your ship if you don’t extinguish it soon. It’s hot, it’s toxic, and you are relying on your partner for your very survival. Oh, and your partner is a robot.

This is neither a game nor a movie, but a possible scenario based on robots being developed in Virginia Tech Mechanical Engineering laboratories that will be capable of fighting fires on Navy ships. Fire expert Brian Lattimer and robotics expert Dennis Hong, whose RoMeLa group produced award-winning CHARLI the humanoid robot, have teamed up with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) on the project, which is funded by the Office of Naval Research.

Dennis Hong with robot

Dennis Hong is leading a team focused on designing and constructing the robot.

Working and communicating with humans, these firefighting robots will enter dangerous areas to extinguish fires. The heat won’t bother them, and they’ll sense through smoke.

Unlike many robots today, this robot won’t just wait for a particular cue that tells it to execute a particular action. Working with its human partners, “this robot will scan the environment and make its own decisions,” Lattimer explains. “The robot will be able to create a 3-D map of the space, know how far away things are, detect a fire, walk towards it, and apply a fire suppressant technology.” The robot will use the same fire suppression agents that a sailor would use.

Hong’s team is focusing on designing and constructing the robot, and Lattimer’s group is working with the sensor and control technologies. With so many variables and the predicted harsh operating environment, no part of this project is easy. “It’s a challenge, but we have the unique expertise and team to make it happen,” says Lattimer.

Brian Lattimer gives demo

Brian Lattimer explains his research during a live fire-suppression demo.

The shipboard application is ideal for a humanoid robot, according to Hong. “Navy ships are an environment designed for humans,” he says. For example, the doorways are hatches with knee-knocker thresholds that a robot with limbs can navigate.

Current humanoid robots use Zero Moment Point technology to balance and walk with two legs, but this limits the robots to walking on surfaces that are smooth, hard, and flat. In a real situation on a ship, none of that is guaranteed. During a fire, for example, the floor can warp and debris can litter a pathway. And ships travel on a constantly moving sea.

The firefighting robots will be using what Hong calls compliant linear actuator technology that will allow them to walk and balance on rough and unstable terrain — and will eventually allow them to run. This new, biologically-inspired design will allow the robot’s movements to be less rigid and more humanlike. “It’s a big departure from the traditional humanoid robots. If this robot is successful, in the future, it will be mopping the deck, preparing the food, and doing other tasks,” says Hong.

The robots will be teamed with human firefighters. In the noise of a fire, the robots and human partners will need to communicate and Hong expects them to use hand signals that are already standard in emergency situations. NRL researchers are working on the human robot interaction challenge. The robots will be protected against fire and heat by a standard human fire suit.

Making the robot move easily through the ship, communicate, and work with humans is only part of the project’s challenges. Equally important is the robot’s ability to sense and interact with its environment. “We’re going to need new sensors to navigate harsh, high-temperature environments,” says Lattimer. “Even sensors that work for fog aren’t able to see through the smoke particulates. Zero visibility in fog isn’t the same as zero visibility in smoke. We’re developing sensor technologies to handle that.”

The robot’s interactions require multispectral sensors with robust algorithms to interpret the data. The firefighting robots will handle computation on board, requiring analysis and decision making in an ever-changing environment. “The robots will need to analyze the situation, make decisions on where to go and where to aim the fire suppressant,” Lattimer explains. “There is an added dimension that they will have to also determine how far distant to aim. That’s a much harder problem,” he says.

The group estimates that the robots will be functional members of a ship’s crew by 2020.