Firefighters of the future? U.S. Navy building firefighting robots

The U.S. Navy is testing shipboard autonomous firefighting robots to both detect and extinguish on-board fires

By Sarah Gray

Published April 3, 2014 10:15PM (EDT)

Firefighters extinguish a burning car, following riots in the Stockholm suburb of Kista late May 21, 2013.    (Reuters/Fredrik Sandberg/Scanpix)
Firefighters extinguish a burning car, following riots in the Stockholm suburb of Kista late May 21, 2013. (Reuters/Fredrik Sandberg/Scanpix)

The Navy has created shipboard autonomous firefighting robots, or SAFFiR, to be used on board Navy ships to both detect and fight fires. The technology was developed by engineers at Virginia Tech, University of California, Los Angeles, and University of Pennsylvania.

In case of a fire, the robots could perform a variety of tasks including balancing (on a moving ship), turning valves, picking up and pulling a fire hose, and spraying water at the fire. The robots are also equipped with a vision system to search for survivors, and can withstand higher heats than humans.

The Office of Naval Research wrote on its website, "The objective of the shipboard autonomous firefighting robot (SAFFiR) is to develop human-centric, autonomous systems for fire safety and damage control." The robot has not been tasked with replacing humans in firefighting, but rather aiding them with its environmental sensors and other language features.

According to the BBC, two different versions of the robot have been made (one 5 feet and one slightly taller), and will be tested aboard the USS Shadwell, a decommissioned Navy ship. The USS Shadwell is regularly set on fire to test new equipment and this will be no exception.

Thus far, this firefighting robot is specific to the U.S. Navy and shipboard fires. "This technology will allow the Navy to meet damage recovery mandates and reduce human risks," explains the Office of Naval Research website.

This is not the first time robot entities have been developed by the military. Currently the U.S. military uses unmanned aerial and underwater drones. Battlefield robots have also been tested.

According to Motherboard, the Department of Defense's 2015 Budget proposal is the stuff of (terrifying) science fiction -- especially the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The DARPA Biological Technologies Office was just launched, and in an April 1 press release it said, "New technology office will merge biology, engineering, and computer science to harness the power of natural systems for national security."

In other words, cutting-edge technology for the war machine. The BBC boils it down to "creating man-made super-materials, renewable fuels and solar cells."

And while SAFFiR the firefighting robot sounds innocuous, the use of robots in human roles has many implications. And in terms of new military research, it is a bit terrifying to think of what the future holds.

h/t BBC, Motherboard, Office of Naval Research, DARPA

Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email

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Firefighters Innovation Robots Tehcnology U.s. Navy