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Navy Experimenting with Robot Firefighters
The first major test is set for summer aboard a purposely ignited decommissioned vessel
By Colin Daileda, Mashable - Filed Mar 24, 2014

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A former United States naval vessel will be set on fire this August, and the Navy will send robots to put out the blaze.

The Navy is testing robots that will put out fires instead of having sailors do the job. The humanoids may be tasked with dousing fires aboard naval vessels full-time within a few years, experts within the Navy told Mashable. But before that happens, the machines will have to pass a test in August at Mobile Bay, Ala., aboard a decommissioned vessel dedicated to firefighting exercises, the ex-USS Shadwell. This will mark the first time the bots have practiced on a ship.

Firefighting is a team effort, and adding robots to the equation won't change that. The humanoids will operate hoses just like living, breathing humans, and their eyes will be able to recognize flames. Their movements, however, will be dictated by hand and voice commands given by a person standing nearby.

Those verbal orders will be especially important.

“If you have an iPhone, you probably have tried to interact with Siri, and there are whole webpages dedicated to Siri fail," Paul Bello, Ph.D., a program officer in cognitive science at the Office of Naval Research, told Mashable. The Navy can't afford any fire fails, because every misunderstood command means the flames burn a bit longer.

An English-recognition system will allow the robots to interpret commands within the specific context of fighting fires, as sometimes a human's literal words can differ from what he meant.

“You say very little (as a firefighter), but what you say ends up entailing a lot," Bello said. "You’re depending on your teammate to know enough about you and to know enough about the situation (that they will understand what you're saying)."

The August test run will almost certainly include some kinks, and while engineers problem-solve, others in the Navy are trying to find ways to make the humanoids more cost effective.

Tom McKenna, Ph.D., a program officer in biorobotics and pattern recognition at the Office of Naval Research,says a single firefighting robot could cost about $1 million, though that price is likely to fall when the Navy finalizes a prototype and a way to mass produce. They'll still be pricey, though, so perhaps the robots should look into doing some dusting and sweeping if they want to earn their keep.

Because the ships are designed for people, the bots will function at a higher level if they are built like humans. They will be able to climb ladders, turn doorknobs and perform other basic physical tasks to help them carry supplies from one place to another. If the firefighting goes according to plan, the humanoids might take over other dangerous duties, too, such as administering medicine on the battlefield or scoping out disaster areas before soldiers are sent in.

Guns are out of the question, though; the U.S. Department of Defense has a strict policy against handing weapons to autonomous bots. McKenna said the Office of Naval Research has not conducted any studies in that area.

Neither McKenna nor Bello revealed a concrete timeline for a rollout of the robotic firefighters, but they hope it will take no longer than a few years.

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