A major challenge faced by humanoid robots is the ability to balance on unstable terrain, especially for bipedal robots. One potential solution is whole-body momentum control—it allows a robot to optimize its joint locations and maintain a center of mass.
At the Naval Future Force Science & Technology EXPO, researchers at Virginia Tech for the U.S. Navy successfully demonstrated that technology at work in its Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR). The long-term goal of the robot is to keep Navy operatives from the danger of direct exposure to fire.
SAFFiR was able to walk across uneven floors, identify overheated equipment via thermal imaging, and use a hose to extinguish a small fire in a series of experiments. Standing 5 ft., 10 in. tall and weighing 143 lb., the robot utilizes a special mechanism design to give it a “super-human” range of motion to maneuver in complex spaces. It houses a variety of sensors, including infrared stereovision and a rotating laser for light detection and ranging (LIDAR), enabling it to see through dense smoke. The robot is helping the Office of Naval Research (ONR) evaluate the applications of unmanned systems in damage control and inspections aboard naval vessels.
The robot can complete tasks autonomously, but a human operator is kept in the loop to intervene if necessary. Though the current prototype is programmed to take measured steps and handle hoses on its own, researchers currently give it instructions from a computer console.
A more advanced design of the robot is perhaps another option down the road, with features such as enhanced intelligence, communications capabilities, and greater speed, computing power, and battery life for extended applications. The robots could then be configured to take shipboard measurements, scan for corrosion and leaks, and identify changes in the shapes of rooms from their original configuration.