The three-year effort, which will be funded by the Office of Naval Research, will be aimed at building a prototype of the robotic firefighter. The eventual goal is a walking, talking robot equipped with sensors and fire suppressant that could move around a ship independently, putting out blazes.
The idea of using robots for the dangerous job of fighting fires is nothing new, but building one that resembles a human is a novel approach. "Ship spaces are built for humans," Dr. Thomas McKenna, a program manager at the Office of Naval Research, told AOL News in explaining the choice of a humanoid robot.
The narrow passages, stairs and other ship-unique architecture would be difficult to navigate for most robots. There are, according to McKenna, "simpler robots" that can handle one part of a ship, but not another.
"Why not go for the whole enchilada?" he said of the new project.
The humanoid robot would be designed to be able to travel autonomously throughout the ship, even interact with people and, of course, fight fires. It would even be equipped with microdrones that could be dispatched to areas too small for a human or robot to access.
This isn't the Navy's first foray into humanoid robots. The Office of Naval Research has sponsored other efforts to build more human-like robots, like Nexi, an MIT robot that displays emotions and travels around on a two-wheel chassis, and Octavia, a "Jetsons"-inspired robot built by the Naval Research Laboratory.
The Office of Naval Research expects to spend about $2 million a year on the new firefighting robot, which builds on that previous robotics work. Virginia Tech, University of Pennsylvania and the Naval Research Laboratory will all be involved in the project, according to McKenna.
Android firefighters may be able to replace many of the dangerous tasks currently performed by humans, but don't expect robots to be carrying humans over their shoulder like real firefighters.
"There isn't a notion of rescue," McKenna said. "But we do expect them to find casualties."