NRL Hosts Shipboard Fire Robotics Consortium
Monday, March 24, 2014
Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory/Jamie Hartman

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research (LASR), partner in the Navy's Damage Control for the 21st Century project (DC-21), recently hosted robotics research teams from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) and the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) to demonstrate the most current developments of advanced autonomous systems to assist in discovery, control, and damage control of incipient fires.

Fighting fires, inherent by its extreme unpredictability, high temperatures and rapid decline of environmental and structural integrities, can at times prove challenging to even the most seasoned firefighting veteran. Add to this scenario a cloistered platform, say many levels down inside a seagoing ship, and the challenge is exponentially increased resulting in extreme risks to human life. Yet, given these risks, a shipboard fire must be contained and extinguished for the safety of the crew and continued mission readiness of the ship.

To mitigate these risks, NRL researchers at LASR and NRL's Navy Center for Applied Research in Artificial Intelligence (NCARAI), under direction and funding from the Office of Naval Researcha (ONR), are working with university researchers to develop advanced firefighting technologies for shipboard fires using humanoid robots, an effort led by the NRL Chemistry Division.

"As part of the Navy's 'leap ahead' initiative this research focuses on the integration of spatial orientation and the shipboard mobility capabilities of future shipboard robots," said Dr. Thomas McKenna, managing program officer, ONR Computational Neuroscience and Biorobotics programs. "The goal of this research is to develop the mutual interaction between a humanoid robotic firefighter and the rest of the firefighting team."

This highly specialized research, to promote advanced firefighting techniques, includes development of the novel robotic platform and fire-hardened materials (Virginia Tech), algorithms for perception and navigation autonomy (Penn), human-robot interaction technology, and computational cognitive models that will allow the robotic firefighter to work shoulder-to-shoulder and interact naturally with naval firefighters (NCARAI).

"These advancements complement highly specialized NRL research that focuses specifically on the human-robot interaction technology and shipboard-based spatial interrogation technology," said Alan C. Schultz, director of LASR and the Navy Center for Applied Research in Artificial Intelligence. "Developments made from this research will allow a Navy firefighter to interact peer-to-peer, shoulder-to-shoulder with a humanoid robotic firefighter."

The NRL LASR, where the artificial intelligence portion of the research is performed, hosted the consortium of university researchers to demonstrate their most current developments. The LASR facility allows the researchers from Virginia Tech and Penn to demonstrate, in a controlled environment, progress in the critical steps necessary for shipboard fire suppression using variants of their Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot, or SAFFiR. In 2013, human-robot interaction technology and cognitive models, developed by NRL, were also demonstrated at the laboratory.

"The LASR facility, with its unique simulated multi-environments and state-of-the-art labs allows us to 'test out' our ideas before we go to the field." Schultz said. "In essence, our facility gives us a cost saving method for testing concepts and ideas before we go to the expense of field trials."

While at LASR, the students demonstrated the complex motion, agility, and walking algorithms of the robots over natural and manmade terrain and simulated shipboard sea state (pitch and roll) conditions. Also demonstrated were 'seek-and-find' algorithms for locating a fire emergency, in this case an open flame, and the use of 'artificial muscle' for the lifting and activation of fire suppression equipment, such as opening a water valve, lifting and walking with a fire hose, and activating a nozzle.

"SAFFiR is being designed to move autonomously throughout a ship to learn ship layout, interact with people, patrol for structural anomalies, and handle many of the dangerous firefighting tasks that are normally performed by humans," McKenna said. The robot is designed with enhanced multi-modal sensor technology for advanced navigation and a sensor suite that includes a camera, gas sensor, and stereo infrared (IR) and ultraviolet (UV) cameras to enable it to see through smoke and detect sources of excess heat. SAFFiR is also capable of walking in all directions, balancing in sea state conditions, and traversing obstacles such as 'knee-knocker' bulkhead openings.

"Today's display demonstrates the integration of perception through multiple sensors, and of locomotion through biped walking," said Dr. Daniel Lee, director, General Robotics Automation, Sensing, Perception Lab and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Tasks as humans we take for granted, such as standing and remaining upright, become increasingly complex with the addition of full body mobility required for walking and lifting. Dr. Brian Lattimer, associate professor at Virginia Tech's Department of Mechanical Engineering, additionally commented that what we are now seeing is the result of a multidisciplinary project combined to perform all the critical tasks necessary for fire suppression by a humanoid robot.

"In dark or smoke occluded and noisy environments found in shipboard firefighting conditions, tactile feedback—touch—is an important form of communication between human firefighters," said John Farley, project officer ex-USS Shadwell, NRL Chemistry Division. "Moving forward, the team will integrate NRL's human-robot interaction technology with the SAFFiR platform so that there is a greater focus on natural interaction with naval firefighters."

In the short term, however, to protect robotic mechanisms and electronics from intense heat, researchers at NRL's Advanced Materials Section have developed a class of light-weight, high temperature polyetheretherketone (PEEK)-like phthalonitrile-resin that can be molded to any shape and remain strong at temperatures up to 500 degrees Celsius. Later this year, the robotic teams are expecting to conduct shipboard trials onboard the Navy's only full-scale fire test ship, the ex-USS Shadwell, moored in Mobile, Ala.

  • Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory/Jamie Hartman

    Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory/Jamie Hartman

  • Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory/Jamie Hartman

    Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory/Jamie Hartman

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