The future of firefighting is approaching at warp speed: By next year, engineers from Virginia Tech expect to test the first autonomous firefighting robot designed for the U.S. Navy, with the ultimate expectation that dangerous shipboard fires can be handled safely by SAFFIR—the Shipboard Autonomous Fire Fighting Robot.
The Birth of SAFFIR
Pronounced “sapphire,” the robot is being created at Virginia Tech’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, for exclusive use by the Navy and funded by the Office of Naval Research.
Brian Lattimer, PhD, is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech and one of the primary engineers involved in the SAFFIR project. “My colleague Dennis Hong and I were talking about using robots in firefighting applications,” Lattimer recalls. “He’s involved in developing robots, and I’m on the fire side of things.” Lattimer’s career includes research and teaching on topics surrounding fire dynamics, experimental and computational studies of combustion, heat transfer and heat generation from fuels.
Hong and Lattimer proposed their idea of using robots to the Navy as a way to help keep people out of danger. “There are ways to integrate [SAFFIR] to help with the most hazardous conditions that sailors face,” Lattimer explains.
Sorry Star Wars Fans …
The SAFFIR project has received positive attention in the media; however, some sources labeled SAFFIR as a “C-3PO-based robot,” referring to the well-known humanoid robot in the Star Wars series of films. But according to Lattimer, the comparison is misleading—there is no Star Wars connection here. “[Both Dr. Hong and I] were interested in developing humanoid-type robots, because ships are already designed for humans and the navigation is very tricky,” he points out. “A wheel-based robot couldn’t get over the ‘knee-knockers’ [the low partitions between compartments].” The takeaway: Any resemblance to C-3PO is coincidental.
A Work in Progress
SAFFIR will have limited, though essential, firefighting capabilities. “At this stage, we’re limiting it to operating a handline and tossing a propelled extinguishing agent technology [PEAT] grenade,” Lattimer explains. PEAT grenades are still being developed, but they contain a dispersal cartridge that disseminates water or firefighting foam for fire suppression. “There’s a possibility that we’ll have an integrated extinguisher on it so that it can suppress very small fires. But we want to focus on putting the robot—rather than humans—in harm’s way.”
The engineers are approaching shipboard fires as indoor commercial fires. “There might be fuel spills, electrical fires or your typical combustibles,” Lattimer says. To simulate the commercial fire environment, as well as the human interaction needs of SAFFIR, Virginia Tech is working with experts from the Naval Research Lab.
One particularly impressive aspect of SAFFIR: It will be autonomous, so that it won’t have to be told where to go or what to do. “It will have sensors and algorithms built in, and it will be able to operate in zero visibility,” Lattimer explains. “However, it’s also being designed for human interaction, and will be able to understand hand gestures such as pointing.” So a firefighter can direct SAFFIR if necessary—which might come in handy if there are simultaneous events. “Further down the line, we envision a team of robots on each ship,” Lattimer says. “There might be different robots with different roles, such as boundary cooling and fire suppressing.”
As of late 2012, the Virginia Tech engineers were wholly focused on SAFFIR’s functionality. Its physical “body” will be addressed once the baseline design is complete, and built from 100% fireproof materials. Once built, the engineers expect that SAFFIR will operate for a maximum of 30 minutes. This time limit is not due to the robot’s abilities, but rather due to naval history. Lattimer explains, “They need to get a [shipboard] fire out within that timeframe or bad things start to happen.”
A Two-Tiered Test
In late 2013, a SAFFIR prototype will make its firefighting debut in a demonstration on board the former U.S.S. Shadwell, a decommissioned landing ship docked in Mobile, Ala., that serves as the Navy’s full-scale damage-control research, development, test and evaluation platform.
The demonstration will include two scenarios. “There will be one large fire—nearly a flashover—inside the ship,” Lattimer explains. “The robot will throw a PEAT grenade and close off the room, and then follow up by suppressing the fire with a handline. The robot will be working with a Navy firefighter during this exercise.”
In the second scenario, SAFFIR will work autonomously to identify a much smaller fire and put it out. “Our goal is to hold those demonstrations in 2013. The next steps depend on how those turn out,” Lattimer says.
A Final Note
As proven by the SAFFIR project, firefighting technology continues to take great strides, indicating that, in terms of firefighting suppression devices, the possibilities are endless. Ultimately, SAFFIR will become a fixture on naval ships and could eventually go on to spark the creation of robot firefighter “cousins”—which just might someday work alongside your department!