Last week, the robotics industry made a huge leap forward, with the Navy announcing that it planned to test a humanoid robot built to fight fires at sea this August.
The robot, called the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR) and developed by a team of scientists from the Naval Research Laboratory, Virginia Tech, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the most advanced robotic machines ever developed. There are two versions of the robot - one that stands five feet tall was a simple legs and control mechanisms. Its six-foot tall brother is more advanced, capable of complicated locomotion.
During the test, to be conducted at a ship graveyard in Alabama, the robots are expected to keep its balance on a moving boat; turn valves; pick up, haul and turn on a hose, and then turn the water toward a fire. Sensors that allow the robots to essentially see through smoke using a combination of laser, stereo and infrared sensors will also be tested. The Navy also said it would test a small drone that can fly through a sub, looking for victims.
“Its upper body will be capable of manipulating fire suppressors and throwing propelled extinguishing agent technology (PEAT) grenades,” the Navy announced. “It is battery powered and 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.”
The robots are also capable of making some autonomous decisions, including how to move their joints and where to step. A human is expected to supervise the test and will have the ability to manipulate the robot.
The Navy said the use of these robots is still years away. But their ability to perform tasks like hauling a fire hose and turning valves is not far from the skills required by a soldier on the battlefield, raising questions about the ethics of the military use of robots.
SAFFiR is just one of many robots currently being developed, and many of the projects are funded by DARPA, the secretive defense research branch of the U.S. military. DARPA is also offering a $2 million prize for companies and universities to develop robot technology.
DOD is not the only one developing robot technology, of course. Boston Dynamics, which was recently acquired by Google, is working on its own humanoid robot, and has developed a robotic mule designed to haul gear on the battlefield.
A Fine Line
The blistering pace of robotic technology development scares some within the defense and ethics communities. Human Rights Watch and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots have already launched campaigns to create prohibitions against the militarization of robots.
"Giving machines the power to decide who lives and dies on the battlefield would take technology too far,” Steve Goose, Arms Division director at Human Rights Watch, said in a November 2012 statement announcing the release of a study, “Losing Humanity: The Case Against Killer Robots." He said, “Human control of robotic warfare is essential to minimizing civilian deaths and injuries.”
Michael Gennert, the director of Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s robotics engineering program, said DOD funding of technological advances has led to amazing consumer products and services.
“A lot of technologies that DARPA funded have fabulous uses. The Internet, GPS systems, cell phones, all of this tech that was developed by DOD and used for defense purposes have great applications beyond that. This is a huge technology investment,” Gennert said.
Gennert and a team of scientists are competing in DARPA’s challenge with Atlas, a six-foot-tall, 330-pound humanoid robot, meant to respond to disasters. He said that robots like this can save lives.
“If you had that kind of robot for Fukushima, you could prevent a huge loss of life,” he said, referring to the number of sick first responders to the disaster. “In robotics, you have the same technology that might appear on the battlefield that could appear in disaster recovery.”
Building Ethics into Robotic Technology
The potential use of robots on the battlefield is certainly a concern, Gennert said. “Is it possible to weaponize a robot? It’s conceivable. Right now, and hopefully for the future, you have to have a person making decisions about firing weapons.”
Gennert said he considers robo-ethics so important that he requires all of his undergraduate robotic students to take a course on social issues connected to robotics. “It’s a university’s role …to develop the wisdom in our students and beyond to use that technology for humankind’s benefit. That’s part of our mission,” he said.
Gennert also cautioned that the use of autonomous humanoid robots is more than five years away. In the near future, he envisions the use of robotic assistants for first responders.
“It’s not hard to imagine having a robot assistant that could help [firefighters], carry a hose and extra air. It’s a bit closer in time,” he said. “You can imagine that a smoke jumping firefighting crew could carry a small reconnaissance robot, a little UAV. If they’re fighting the fire and they lost contact with it, you launch your robot, get over the trees, and you can find the fire.”
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