Robot walks through vegetation fire

With “Cassie”, the University of Michigan is testing the limits of what a robot can do.

Above: Cassie, a robot developed by the University of Michigan, is seen walking through a prescribed fire in this screen shot from the video below.

The folks at the University of Michigan’s robotics lab have shown that a small robot can walk through a slowly spreading, very low-flame-length prescribed fire.

During the next few years robots are not going to replace wildland firefighters. But as was seen as far back as 2009 they might be able to carry heavy loads. For firefighters this could include hauling fuel, hose, pumps, or drinking water to hot shot crews, or resupplying spike camps.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Wired:

You might notice the Cassie still walks a bit gingerly. But [Jessy] Grizzle and his team are constantly tweaking the biped’s algorithms, then testing it all out in the real world … that’s sometimes on fire. It still struggles with larger obstructions like fallen tree limbs, but these are the kinds of challenges that are going to push the platform forward. Theoretically, you could outfit a Cassie—which would set you back a few hundred thousand dollars, by the way—to see straight through the smoke with lidar. It could see things no human firefighter could.

“I think it is an interesting demonstration of the ability to get robots out of the lab and into the real world, with a view toward robots that are able to perform useful tasks and get humans out of harm’s way,” writes Caltech’s Aaron Ames, one of a handful of roboticists who’s using the Cassie platform to study robotic bipedal locomotion. “We are still a long ways from autonomous firefighting robots, but the robots of today—and the dynamic walking control algorithms that have been developed recently—take an important step in this direction.”

Firefighting robots

Thermite robot
Thermite robot

Will firefighting robots ever replace human firefighters? Not on a large scale in the near future, but there have been advances in technology in recent years that has resulted in them being used on actual fires. There is no question that they could be useful in certain types of incidents where the environment would be very dangerous for humans, such as hazardous materials, radioactivity, or a propane tank that could explode (or BLEVE).

Most of the firefighting robots in development or being used today are controlled remotely, are tethered by a fire hose which supplies water, and they have infrared and standard cameras which transmit images back to the operator.

The Thermite robot, pictured above, is small enough to be able to go through an average sized door in a structure. The video below features this machine.

Being used now in New South Wales, Australia is a much larger robot made in Germany, called a Turbine Aided Firefighting machine (TAF 20).

NSW firefighting robot
Turbine Aided Firefighting machine (TAF 20) being demonstrated in New South Wales. ABC photo.

The $310,000 TAF 20 can spray water mist or foam from 60 meters (196 feet) and blast water up to 90 meters (295 feet). It was used last week at a factory fire in Sydney where NSW Emergency Services Minister David Elliot said it proved its effectiveness, according to ABC news.

“It will be of great use for our firefighters in battling other large and complex fires, including bushfires,” Mr Elliot said.

Lockheed Martin, which recently demonstrated a flying firefighting robot is also developing a ground-based machine they call the Fire Ox.

Lockheed Martin firefighting robot.
Lockheed Martin firefighting robot. Lockheed Martin image.

The Fire Ox is self-sufficient, in that it is not dependent on a tethered fire hose since it has an on-board water tank. It appears to be designed for wildland fires and haz-mat incidents. It can be operated with a game-style controller, programmed to follow a predetermined course, or can follow a person walking in front of it.

(UPDATE December 14: we found out today that the fire suppression package on the Fire Ox was built by BFX Fire Apparatus, one of our supporters.)

The U.S. Navy has been researching the use of robots to help deal with fires on board ships, the nightmare of sailors who are stuck on a vessel in the middle of the ocean.

SAFFiR firefighting robot
SAFFiR firefighting robot . US Navy.

Their SAFFiR team is working on a humanoid robot that walks like a person and carries a fire hose. They are far from having a version that has anything like the mobility of a human, but they have made significant progress in recent years. One feature they are working on is to teach the machine to follow orders by interpreting and acting upon gestures.

SAFFiR firefighting robot
Training a robot to follow gesture commands, part of the SAFFiR firefighting robot research by the US Navy.

Navy is designing a robot firefighter

SAFFiRThe U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) is working on the design of a robot that would suppress shipboard fires.

Below is an excerpt from an article published by the NRL March 7, 2012:


“…The firefighting robot, called the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR), is being designed to move autonomously throughout the ship, interact with people, and fight fires, handling many of the dangerous firefighting tasks that are normally performed by humans. The humanoid robot should be able to maneuver well in the narrow passages and ladderways that are unique to a ship and challenging for most older, simpler robots to navigate.

The robot is designed with enhanced multi-modal sensor technology for advanced navigation and a sensor suite that includes a camera, gas sensor, and stereo IR camera to enable it to see through smoke. Its upper body will be capable of manipulating fire suppressors and throwing propelled extinguishing agent technology (PEAT) grenades. It is battery powered that holds enough energy for 30 minutes of firefighting. Like a sure-footed sailor, the robot will also be capable of walking in all directions, balancing in sea conditions, and traversing obstacles.

Another key element of the SAFFiR development is to allow damage control personnel and the robot to work cohesively as a team. Algorithms are being developed to allow autonomous mobility and decision making by the robot as a team member. To enable natural interaction with a human team leader, the robot will have multimodal interfaces that will enable the robot to track the focus of attention of the human team leader, as well as to allow the robot to understand and respond to gestures, such as pointing and hand signals. Where appropriate, natural language may also be incorporated, as well as other modes of communication and supervision.

Researchers from Virginia Tech and University of Pennsylvania are also working with NRL on the project. They plan to test the firefighting robot in a realistic firefighting environment onboard the ex-USS Shadwell in late September 2013.”


Judging from the video below uploaded to YouTube in September, 2013, this robot is not going to be fighting fires any time soon.

Can a laundry-folding robot fold Nomex?

laundry folding robotWe don’t know if the researchers at the University of California-Berkeley intend to teach their laundry-folding robot how to fold freshly washed Nomex, but right now it is concentrating on how to fold rectangular-shaped objects, like towels.

Here is a description of the “adorable” robot from

This laundry-folding robot may not find many fans at the local laundromat, but only because it takes so long in holding up each towel for scrutiny before folding. Still, its fussiness speaks to a special care for laundry — or painstaking programming routines — that has won our hearts. You see, folding isn’t a chore for this robot. It’s an art.

The special PR2 bot is the result of a collaboration between University of California-Berkeley researchers and the gadget guys at Willow Garage. [The] video shows the robot very carefully inspecting and then folding a pile of five unfamiliar towels of various sizes on a table, sped up 50 times.

The robot can only work its folding magic on rectangular-shaped cloth for now, so your unmentionables are safe from its scrutiny. We look forward to seeing PR2 work its slow-mo magic on a messy preteen’s room in the near future.

Robots on the fire line?

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On May 4 we saw a video of robots playing soccer, now we have learned that Boston Dynamics has developed a 4-legged robot, the Big Dog, that can travel over rough terrain while carrying 340 pounds. They created it with funding from  the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency with the goal of developing a robot that could go anywhere people and animals can go.

Can you imagine this on the fire line, carrying drip torch fuel, hose, pumps, or drinking water to hot shot crews, or resupplying spike camps?

hoto: Boston Dynamics


Photo: Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics describes the Big Dog like this:

BigDog is the alpha male of the Boston Dynamics robots. It is a rough-terrain robot that walks, runs, climbs and carries heavy loads. BigDog is powered by an engine that drives a hydraulic actuation system. BigDog has four legs that are articulated like an animal’s, with compliant elements to absorb shock and recycle energy from one step to the next. BigDog is the size of a large dog or small mule; about 3 feet long, 2.5 feet tall and weighs 240 lbs.

BigDog’s on-board computer controls locomotion, servos the legs and handles a variety of sensors. BigDog’s control system keeps it balanced, navigates, and regulates its energetics as conditions vary. Sensors for locomotion include joint position, joint force, ground contact, ground load, a gyroscope, LIDAR and a stereo vision system. Other sensors focus on the internal state of BigDog, monitoring the hydraulic pressure, oil temperature, engine functions, battery charge and others.

In separate tests BigDog runs at 4 mph, climbs slopes up to 35 degrees, walks across rubble, climbs a muddy hiking trail, walks in snow and water, and carries a 340 lb load. BigDog set a world’s record for legged vehicles by traveling 12.8 miles without stopping or refueling.

The ultimate goal for BigDog is to develop a robot that can go anywhere people and animals can go. The program is funded by the Tactical Technology Office at DARPA.

I want one.