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Building a robot firefighter

Navy, colleges take up the challenge of creating robots for dangerous duty

Before the year is out, the Navy will start a fire on one of its ships and send in a robot to put it out.

Designed at Virginia Tech and the University of Pennsylvania, the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot, or SAFFiR, is a two-legged machine built to climb stairs and open watertight hatches just like a human. But Dennis Hong, one of SAFFiR’s developers, said the robot is built to withstand flames and smoke that humans might not survive.

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“This is almost science fiction, but it’s real,” Hong said.

Even as Boston mourns the loss of two firefighters trapped in a blaze in March, engineers in Massachusetts and around the world are working to develop robots that may one day take the place of humans in dangerous environments — from burning buildings to damaged nuclear power plants.

Search-and-rescue robots that roll on wheels or caterpillar treads were deployed during disasters such as the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Last year, a hose-wielding robot from South Korea tackled a major fire in Illinois. And in May, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police used an unmanned drone to find an injured man who was lost in a remote area of Saskatchewan, in what may be the first case of a drone aircraft saving a life.

Now the US government and world-class universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Worcester Polytechnic Institute are developing humanoid rescue robots, two-legged machines designed to climb stairs, open doors, operate fire hoses, even drive emergency vehicles.

But do not expect to see such robots in action anytime soon.

Michael A. Gennert, the director of WPI’s robotics engineering program, said that teaching machines to perform even basic rescue tasks is a daunting challenge.

“There’s an awful lot of stuff to do,” Gennert said. “It’s not going to be easy or cheap.”

Gennert, his colleagues, and students are developing control software for Atlas, a six-foot-tall, 330-pound robot shaped like a man.

Atlas was engineered for use as a first-responder robot by Boston Dynamics, a Waltham company recently acquired by Google Inc.

The WPI group is one of twelve teams vying for a $2 million prize offered by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The contest involves maneuvering Atlas through a series of challenging tests, using the same equipment that human first responders would use: ladders, valves, doorknobs, or steering wheels. An MIT team is also enrolled in the contest, while a version of the SAFFiR naval firefighting robot, called THOR, is participating.

But this impressive array of engineering talent faces a series of vexing challenges.

Although ideally a rescue robot would not need human supervision, such a machine is far beyond what scientists can build today.

“You can’t just tell the robot go in there and put the fire out,” Gennert said. “That’s a long ways away.” And yet a robot that must be under constant human control would be more trouble than it is worth.

So the roboticists are trying to give their machines “supervised autonomy” — the ability to perform certain multistage tasks in response to a single command. For instance, the machine might be told to pick up a hose and connect it to a hydrant. The robot’s vision system must recognize a hose and a hydrant on sight, regardless of lighting conditions or viewing angles. It must then lift the hose fitting, hold it at the proper angle and screw it on tight, but not too tight. Each step is trivial for humans, but tough for machines.

Still, the WPI team is making progress. Their robot can recognize a hose, walk over, and pick it up. “That’s still a small, little task, but it is something,” Gennert said.

Meanwhile, at MIT on Monday, that school’s Atlas team put on a demonstration that also showed some of the challenges they face fine-tuning the robot for real-life situations.

At one point, the MIT Atlas was able to pick up and toss aside a two-by-four, representing a piece of rubble at a disaster site. But the robot toppled forward when it tried to walk faster than at a snail’s pace. The reason: new mechanical hands attached by MIT engineers. The robot’s original software could not compensate for the extra weight attached to each arm.

A software upgrade should fix the problem.

The MIT and WPI robots are not hardened to deal with flames, smoke, and water, either. But the Navy robot, SAFFiR, will be coated with a thermal shield to protect its innards from high temperatures, while still being able to move around with agility and precision.

“It can walk on rubble, it can close valves, it can even drive a car,” said Hong, who recently left Virginia Tech to join the mechanical and aerospace engineering faculty at the University of California Los Angeles.

This summer, the Navy plans to test SAFFiR on board the USS Shadwell, a decommissioned vessel used to train sailors in firefighting.

“A navy ship is an environment designed by humans for humans,” Hong said. “Unless the robot has a humanoid form, we don’t believe it would be able to navigate those environments.”

But the robot will not be expected to work alone. It will be deployed alongside real Navy firefighters, so its designers are coming up with a system for the robot to respond to commands, whether hand gestures or soft touches such as nudges that point it in the right direction.

At Purdue University in Indiana, engineers are working with a South Korean robot designed to hose down fires. The DRB robot is not humanoid in shape; it looks like a small piece of construction equipment mounted on caterpillar tracks. Nor is it autonomous; a human is always in control.

But the $100,000 machine can drag up to 400 feet of hose into a burning building. The Purdue team is working on upgrades to the robot’s software, to let firefighters control it using an iPhone or Android phone, through touch or voice commands.

They also want to link multiple robots via radio, so they can work as a team.

As a relatively simple point-and-spray device, the DRB robot is already deployed with some Korean fire departments. It has proved its worth in the United States, as well, helping to put out a fire in a large tire warehouse in Hoopeston, Ill. last year.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.
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