February 5, 2015

More than 100 firefighters died while on duty in 2013, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. So replacing human firefighters with robots makes lots of sense — and that’s exactly what scientists at Virginia Tech, along with the U.S. Navy, are trying to do with SAFFiR, short for Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot.

SAFFiR is meant to put out fires in one of the places where they’re most dangerous: Sea-going vessels. The five-foot-ten-inches, 143 pound robot has a sensor array that lets it see through thick smoke to detect fires. Then, with help from a human at the controls, the robot can manipulate a fire hose to extinguish the flames.

“We set out to build and demonstrate a humanoid capable of mobility aboard a ship, manipulating doors and fire hoses, and equipped with sensors to see and navigate through smoke,” said Dr. Thomas McKenna, Office of Naval Research program manager for human-robot interaction and cognitive neuroscience, in a Navy press release Wednesday. “The long-term goal is to keep sailors from the danger of direct exposure to fire.”

Watch footage of SAFFiR’s first on-ship test aboard the USS Shadwell above.

Write to Alex Fitzpatrick at alex.fitzpatrick@time.com.

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