US Navy tests robotic fire-fighters

Design for fire-fighting robot The robot will need to perform a variety of tasks

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Fire-fighting robots designed to withstand intense heat are to be tested by the US Navy this summer.

The Shipboard Autonomous Fire-fighting Robot (SAFFiR) has been built by engineers at Virginia Tech and other US universities.

The robots are expected to perform a variety of tasks - balancing, turning valves, picking up and dragging a fire hose and jetting water on the fire.

They also have a vision system to search for survivors.

"The human-sized autonomous robot is capable of finding and suppressing shipboard fires and working seamlessly with human fire-fighters," says the Office of Naval Research's website.

Such a machine should be "able to withstand higher heat for longer periods than human fire-fighters," it adds.

Two versions of the robot, made by researchers at Virginia Tech and the universities of California, Los Angeles and Pennsylvania, will be tested on board the decommissioned USS Shadwell.

The ship is regularly set on fire to test new equipment.

One robot will be about 5ft (1.5m) while the other will be slightly taller and more advanced.

Synthetic soldiers

Robots are increasingly finding their way into the military. The Pentagon's Darpa (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has a range of battlefield robots and is also working on ways to enhance soldiers' abilities with exoskeletons and uniforms made of smart materials.

This week it announced a new unit devoted to researching the intersection between biology and engineering.

It will look at creating man-made super-materials, renewable fuels and solar cells.

But it has led some commentators to ask if, longer term, the military will also try to create artificial life.

"It makes you think: Why bother with mechanical robots when you can engineer fake human replicants to fight your battles?" asked Meghan Neal. a journalist at Motherboard - a website dedicated to future technologies.

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