The prototype will go through initial tests in firefighting mockups on the cashiered destroyer USS Shadwell in September of next year.
Judging by the awkward state of the art in Japanese robots – Honda's gawky Asimo is generally considered among the best of the bipeds – we're still several years away from being able to build anything close to the agility, adeptness and breadth of function the NRL predicts for SAFFiR.
Asimo moves itself around on a demo stage fairly well, but has had trouble even walking up stairs, let alone making its way down a smoky corridor on a ship pitching in rough seas, avoiding injured sailors and obstacles along the way.
This video is of an earlier prototype of the basic bipedal robot frame that will probably become part of the Navy's firefighter.
Considering the most practical semi-autonomous industrial robots are those able to do things like cut the grass on golf-course greens using GPS signals to locate their targets, it will be several years before even advanced engineering projects will be able to deliver autonomous, bipedal robots capable of complex behaviors, the ability to maneuver in a difficult environment and identify the best course of action in situations in which there is more than one choice.
Being able to code in a working interpretation of the kind of sign language humans use during disasters is one thing. That's just pattern recognition and programming.
Being able to identify its own environment, choose an appropriate course of action, propel itself there and take appropriate action under dangerous, ambiguous conditions is the kind of thing the Navy gives medals to sailors for achieving.
Hoping a robot can take over to keep sailors from risking themselves is optimistic and noble, as was the assumption radio-controlled ground-bound robots could help in scouting and cleaning up the Fukushima nuclear plants in Japan.
They made almost no progress at the time, though adaptations and new designs have been more help in the months since then.
A shipboard firefighting robot would be a huge contribution to both the development of effective robotics and a tremendous reducer of the mortal risks faced by sailors.
It is also the kind of leading-edge research project the military is better able to fund (and more easily able to take advantage of) than civilian organizations.
Figuring out how to make SAFFiR work the way it's supposed to would be among the best applications of Navy engineering research money I've heard about recently. It's very likely to succeed, eventually.
Virginia Tech./Naval Research Laboratories