WPI gets US Navy funding to program firefighting robots for ships

The US Navy is investing in robots that can find and fight fires on ships at sea and is funding researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute to build software that can power them.

“Substantial losses occur when you have a major fire on a ship and can’t suppress it at an early stage,” Thomas McKenna, a program officer at the Office of Naval Research, said in a release.

The idea is for robots to work side-by-side with naval officers, taking on both tedious patrol duties and more dangerous tasks, like directing a water hose at a blaze.

A WPI team led by assistant professor Dmitry Berenson will receive $587,000 over three years from the ONR to create software that will direct the robot’s locomotion and movements.

The researchers are working with a prototype called SAFFiR — short for Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot — that was built by students at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Berenson and his team join an existing six-year-old program that brings together robotics experts from the Office of Naval Researcher, the University of Pennsylvania, and Carnegie Mellon University.

The five-foot-ten humanoid went on a first-time dry run aboard a retired navy vessel, the USS Shadwell, in 2014, wearing an oversized raincoat to protect its metal and electronic parts from water and other kinds of damage. With engineers behind the controls, SAFFiR used a combination of cameras, laser rangefinders, and thermal imagers to navigate the hallways of the ship and locate the blaze.

If you are a robot, walking on two legs is an incredibly hard thing to pull off. Factor in the rolling movements on a ship and it becomes harder still. The WPI team will work on programming the robot to move around under the kinds of conditions it would face at sea.

Many military-funded robotics projects are chasing the goal of making machines that can perform tasks too dangerous for people.

The primary goal of a recent multi-million dollar robotics contest sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was to kick-start the development of software that could enable the robots to move, maneuver, and operate tools reliably, and as independently as possible. The military already uses robot assistants to defuse IEDs.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
Follow Nidhi on Twitter - Facebook