March 07, 2012, 2:58 PM — Endless optimism in the face of obviously difficult, complex difficulties has led humans to succeed long wars, revolutions, plagues, difficult terrestrial explorations, the quest for space and the belief that despite their artificial immortality, neither Tang nor Twinkies would ultimately poison those who loved them.
The Naval Research Laboratory is pushing unrealistic optimism to new lengths with a project designed to create a humanoid firefighting robot that can survive toxic smoke and chemicals, murderous heat and cramped conditions to fight fires aboard Naval ships that would kill human firefighters.
It's a sensible, even noble intent. Fire, not explosions or gunfire was the biggest fear of sailors under attack by Kamikaze in World War II and in nearly every naval war before that, too.
Wooden ships burn easily, especially when you cover them with pitch and fill them with gunpowder. A ship that burned was a ship that sank, and most sailors couldn't swim. So ship that burned and sank would kill most of the crew who survived the disaster itself.
On metal ships the problem became more intense, as the number, length and inaccessibility of the territory belowdecks expanded in a maze of long, low, cramped hallways and unexpected caches of fuel, explosives and flammable chemicals, often under pressure.
The Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR) was designed to be able to move around a ship designed for bipeds and sensors that would allow it to find the heart of a fire it is trying to extinguish and batteries capable of powering it long enough to make its firefighting significant.
The design includes a visible-light camera, gas detector and infrared camera that allow it to see through smoke and find hot-spots.
It's also to be equipped with the ability to throw propelled extinguishing agent technology (PEAT) grenades that are designed to explode near a blaze that is inaccessible to firefighters with hoses, spraying it with fire-retardant chemicals.
Researchers from Virginia Tech and University of Pennsylvania are also writing in algorithms designed to allow the 'bot to work in a coordinated way with human firefighters and follow the orders of human team leaders directing firefighting effort.
That interactive ability should include the ability to respond to gestures and understand signals such as pointing or hand signals.
Virginia Tech./Naval Research Laboratories