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New Navy robot will fight ship fires

Oct. 23, 2012 - 09:15AM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 23, 2012 - 09:15AM  |  
Researchers at Virginia Tech are developing ASH, or the Autonomous Shipboard Humanoid. The bottom half of ASH, shown here, is already up and walking.
Researchers at Virginia Tech are developing ASH, or the Autonomous Shipboard Humanoid. The bottom half of ASH, shown here, is already up and walking. (Courtesy of Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory / V)
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A lot of the technology used to create soccer star CHARLI-2, pictured, is being used to help ASH fight fires. (Courtesy of Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory / V)

Damage controlmen aboard Navy ships could be getting a new tool to fight fires — a humanlike robot named ASH.

Researchers at Virginia Tech are developing ASH, or the Autonomous Shipboard Humanoid, a firefighting robot sponsored by the Office of Naval Research. The robot will be able to understand hand signals from its human counterparts, locate the fire and deploy a fire suppression canister to put it out, according to lead researcher Dennis Hong. The robot will also be equipped with special sensors and infrared cameras that allow it to see through smoke and in areas with low visibility, according to Brian Lattimer, who works with Hong at Virginia Tech.

"It's not meant to eliminate human firefighters," Hong said. "Humans are better for certain things. The whole idea is to save people's lives. When it's too dangerous for humans to get in, that's a task for the robot."

Though human firefighters stay low to the ground to avoid smoke and high heat, this robot is being built in a human form to allow it to navigate a ship and keep its balance while at sea.

"A Navy ship is an environment designed for humans, the step size, the door handles," Hong said. "Unless the robot is in human shape and form, it won't be able to navigate the environment."

To protect it from heat, Hong said the robot will wear a firefighting suit similar to what humans wear.

The robot's bottom half is already finished and walking, and the upper half will likely be finished by the end of November. Researchers will begin testing the robot aboard the Shadwell, a decommissioned dock landing ship, early next year, Hong said. The Shadwell testing ship is moored in Mobile Bay, Ala.

The goal is to have at least one ASH on every Navy ship, said Tom McKenna, program manager of biorobotics at ONR. He couldn't predict which type of ship will get the robot first, or when.

The robot will be able to find a fire on its own and determine what actions are needed to put it out, Lattimer said. But humans could also give it direction, via hand signals. Hong compared the hand signals to the way special operators communicate in action movies. For example, pointing to an affected area to direct the robot there or waving your arms to make the robot stop.

"It's, ‘We found a fire, you can put it out.' Not, ‘You have to walk this way, hold the hose, spray the water,'" Lattimer said. "Even if the person said, ‘I think there's a fire over there somewhere, but I'm not sure where,' it's been designed to navigate to where the fire is."

The robot will use fire suppression canisters to initially decrease the fire, and will then use the same hand line hose typically used by human firefighters to put out any residual flames, Lattimer said. The robot may also have a backpack with a hose that shoots out fire-suppressing foam, Hong said.

Eventually it should be able to do anything a human can do, Hong said, from shipboard tasks such as mopping the deck to leisure activities like fetching a beer.

"It ultimately can be used not only for firefighting," Hong said. "You know Rosie the Robot [from ‘The Jetsons']? This could be a future butler to do the dishes and laundry."

Just like any humanoid, ASH is a product of his predecessors. A lot of technology for ASH came from CHARLI-2, designed at the Virginia Tech Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory. CHARLI-2 was the first full-size autonomous humanoid robot and was built to study how a robot could walk on two legs. It made headlines for its soccer skills during the Robocup, a competition where autonomous robots play soccer against each other. It won the event in both 2011 and 2012.

Now CHARLI-2's development is "being used to save people's lives," Hong said. "All the technology that was developed is now being used for [ASH]."

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