Could the fireman of tomorrow be called R2-D2?

Robot-3Robots will be used to assist fire fighters in the future, and the first models already exist. A robot designed to find and extinguish fires on its own has just been tested in the United States.

The robot reminds one of a combination between the Terminator and an oversized LEGO creation. Slowly, it raises itself up onto its two legs. Using ordinary cameras, infrared cameras and LIDAR, or a rotating distance-determining laser, the robot scans the locale and identifies a fire. It moves across the uneven floor, takes aim with the fire hose in its hand and extinguishes the fire.
It may sound like pure science fiction, but the scene we have just described is what the Shipboard Autonomous Fire-fighting Robot, or SAFFiR, did during its testing phase in November 2014. The robot was developed by the United States Navy and, as the name suggests, the purpose of the project is to design an automatic robot that can heighten fire safety and minimise the loss of assets on board Navy vessels.
It is not the first time a robot has been used to fight fires. As a matter of fact, robots are ideal for such work.

– One usually says that any work that’s ‘dull, dirty or dangerous’ is an area where robots can be of help. The technology contains several advantages, including its precision and reduction in labour, says Thomas Bak, a professor and head of the Department of Electronic Systems at Denmark’s Aalborg University.

– Fire-fighting will part of the next wave of robotic technology. Initially, we’ll most likely see tele-operated robots, i.e. those operated by humans from a distance, and which can, for example, look around and shoot water at a target, Thomas explains.

Amazingly clumsy
Prototypes of this type of robot exist already today. They are controlled by an operator who is located at a safe distance, and who serves a sort of partner for the firemen. The robots can carry a great deal of equipment, see through smoke and find heat sources. The potential for robot technology, however, goes much farther.

– It’s currently possible to build pretty much anything, but the robots are amazingly clumsy. However, it’s just a question of development. We can compare the situation to the mobile phone some 20 years ago, which was also clumsy, and today it’s very well designed, Thomas says.

The clumsiness lies in the fact that robots have a tough time doing what people do. Specifically, they have trouble evaluating a situation based on several sensory impressions, and then acting based on what they’ve detected.

– People are incredibly good at quickly processing data and combining colour, sound and smell, whereas a robot is good at calculating numbers. You can give a robot a few sensors that provide data, but it’s really tough to get it to conclude anything based on a higher level of abstraction. That’s why it’s currently much cheaper and faster to have an operator behind the robot, Thomas explains.

Difficult to incorporate into a computer
This is also the case with SAFFiR. The android has been four years in the making, and even though it can see through smoke, identify a fire and walk on two legs, which is necessary on a ship, there is still a human at the consol with direct control over the robot. It is a very advanced robot used in fire fighting, but it is not yet fully automatic.

– A fireman will see, hear and smell the fire, and then combine the sensory information with his experience and make an informed decision. This sort of decision-making is very difficult to incorporate into a computer, Thomas notes.

Still far from the robotic fireman
Today, robots are on their way to being used in more complex environments than before. For example, we now have logistics robots operating in the hallways at hospitals and delivering supplies. They run automatically and stop when the hallway is blocked. After stopping, they open a video portal to an operator who then assumes control and makes a decision.

– Researchers are looking to develop robots that can make decisions on their own. This requires that robot recognise obstacles it meets along the way, and it must know if there is a way around the obstacle. For example, there could be a child who teases the robot and moves with it when it tries to go around. With such exceptions, the technology quickly falls apart, as the robot is only familiar with the world with which we’ve programmed it, says Thomas and concludes:

– That’s why a machine that can see to the entire fire-fighting process on its own is quite a ways away, in my opinion. But, it will be here at some point, as we’re still in the early stages of the robotic age, and we’ve only witnessed a fraction of the technology’s full potential. Robots will be used for every conceivable purpose. We’re talking about the same development we’ve seen with computers, which today have automated almost countless tasks for us. Robots will do the same thing.

Perhaps SAFFiR will be one of them. At any rate, the development work will continue for the United States Navy.

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