The Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) recently made headlines with the hiring of two prized recruits. Only the firefighters in question weren’t humans; they were robots. Robot dogs, to be exact.

Billed as the “future of fire safety and rescue,” the computerized canines crawl into burning and collapsed buildings to retrieve victims. They also can detect radiological and nuclear material, toxic gas and other hazardous material.

The FDNY is part of a growing number of organizations using robotics to change how they solve potentially hazardous problems. “What makes a robot a robot is its ability to sense the environment and make decisions based on certain rules,” says Syracuse University professor Zhenyu Gan, co-leader of the Form & Function Focus Group in the BioInspired Institute. “The robots I work with are autonomous, meaning they can go a long time without human interaction.”

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