Center for Strategic Communication

Meet CHARLI-2, Virginia Tech’s skinny, five-foot tall humanoid robot. His balance is enviable: Jostle him, and he’ll right himself — which is one of the reasons the Navy is using him for research on its firefighting robot of the future. Oh, and as the video above shows, he also dances Gangnam Style.

On Monday, CHARLI-2 will formally meet his flesh-and-blood shipmates at an expo in Virginia thrown by the futurists at the Office of Naval Research. His creator, engineer Dennis Hong of Virginia Tech’s Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory, has a $3.5 million grant from the Navy to help design CHARLI-2′s son, the Autonomous Shipboard Humanoid, or ASH. CHARLI-2, the current test platform for ASH, will take the stage at the Office of Naval Research’s annual science and technology showcase to demonstrate how robots can interact with humans.

The Navy has been experimenting with a different robot, the similarly lifelike Octavia, on the same program to build a robot that works with human sailors to fight shipboard fires. Octavia, however, has a wheeled chassis. She will never do anything Gangnam Style. And since ships are filled with “knee-knocker” passageways, ladders and steps, the Navy needs a robot that — at least theoretically — can.

“If a robot can do all the tasks that come with fighting a fire, it can do all these other things on ships, like mopping the deck,” Hong tells Danger Room. “It’s like the Swiss Army knife of robotics.” Or at least the PSY.

But the Navy isn’t just working with Hong because CHARLI-2 has graceful legs. It’s because of the robot’s advanced software, particularly its ability to orient itself. “If you have a bipedal robot with a camera on its head, it’s shaking a lot, so how does the robot figure out where it is in the room?” Hong explains. So Hong designed an algorithm for stabilizing CHARLI-2 and getting it to adapt to obstacles like those knee-knockers. (In robotics, the effort is called SLAM, for simultaneous localization and mapping.) CHARLI-2′s software will contribute to the ASH project, even as its hydraulics help Navy researchers tackle the physical challenges of designing the ‘bot to ascend and descend decks.

Oh, and CHARLI-2′s also, uh, famous. He’s the repeat champion at the prestigious RoboCup robotics awards two years running in the full-size humanoid category. Time has gushed over him. Luxury brand Louis Vuitton gave CHARLI-2 an eponymous award after beating a Singaporean robot at soccer. Hong got a monogrammed leather LV case.

But CHARLI-2 isn’t going to be a prima donna on ship. Starting next year, the Navy will start “making sure it can walk along [a ship’s] aisles, and probably by the end of next year, put it in a smoky environment,” Hong says. And he’s got a love interest: Octavia’s smooth, creamy skin will combine with some of CHARLI-2′s features to yield the ASH robot. Like his father, ASH will have articulable legs that can be placed inside a protective suit, like a human, to withstand temperature extremes.

CHARLI-2′s son might one day work alongside human sailors to put out shipboard flames. But it remains to be seen if either robot can outcompete those sailors in a Gangnam dance-off. However, a confident Hong says, “CHARLI-2 can at least beat Navy sailors in a dance-off doing ‘The Robot.’”