The Department of Defense (DoD)’s robotic pack mule can now play follow-the-leader and walk backward for a considerable distance over rough terrain, bringing the robot closer to serving as a sophisticated mechanical companion for US soldiers in the field.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently posted a video of progress being made as part of its Legged Squad Support System (LS3) program, which has Boston Dynamics -- developer of other DARPA robots Cheetah and Big Dog -- designing and building a massive, four-legged robot that can carry gear, fuel, and food for soldiers as they travel long distances. The US Marine Corps also funded the LS3 program.
The video shows two prototype robots -- roughly the size of large mechanical bulls walking on four legs -- being put through a series of paces, such as stepping backward carefully over rocks and other rugged terrain, showing stability and mobility. However, should the robot tip over, it now can also roll to its side and stand up from a prone position. Other new capabilities include an increase in range of speed, with the ability to go from a 1 to 3Mph walk to a 5Mph jog over rough terrain, with an eventual ability to run at 7Mph over flat surfaces, according to DARPA.
In addition to its advanced skills, the robotic mule also is about 10 times quieter than previous versions, allowing soldiers to carry on conversations while walking next to it, something “that was difficult before,” said Army Lt. Col. Joe Hitt, DARPA’s LS3 program manager, in a press release.
The goal of the LS3 program -- one of several robotic projects DARPA has going -- is to not only carry gear for soldiers, but also follow them autonomously through rough terrain and interpret verbal and visual commands, according to the agency. As noble as that goal may be, it still is a bit disconcerting to watch video footage of such an imposing robotic figure traipsing unattended through the forest.
DARPA has teamed with Boston Dynamics to develop a series of dynamic and ambulatory robots, including Cheetah, which recently ran faster than Usain Bolt; Petman, which can climb stairs and run on a treadmill; and BigDog, another four-legged robot. The agency also is gearing up for a robotics challenge that is asking engineers to build humanoid robots that can perform tasks that are potentially dangerous for humans that might come in handy during disasters or emergencies.
Jack, from what I've read and reported about Boston Robotics' pack animal creations, they're not designed to carry anything as heavy as a human. For that, you want the BEAR: http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1386&doc_id=247687
I didn't see anything about payload in there, Even with the noise leve, this could be useful for getting items from one area to another where air transport isn't really available, but they're not trying to sneak up on anybody either. In addition, I wondering if the payload is such that it could be adapted as an emergency rescue vehicle. If a small group was camped out someplace with one of these and somebody got injured, could they climb on in and get carried out while the rest of the team does whatever they need to do (e.g., shoot back)?
This device definitely will have a usefulness for troops; its agility is amazing. I leave you with a sobriquet on the use of mules in war: http://www.pbs.org/weta/reportingamericaatwar/reporters/pyle/waskow.html
It's still a prototype -- it'll get quieter before it sees any deployment in the field. And even at its current noise level, it could still be useful. There are a lot of situations where stealth is less important than fatigue and logistics: long road marches, street patrols similar to what US troops were doing in Bagdhad until recently, etc. Even a noisy pack mule could help troops carry more with less fatigue, and if the troops hit a point where they think the mule's noise becomes a liability, they still have the option to stash the mule and carry the gear themselves.
I have to agree with you, Jenn, on the whole issue of being loud and attracting attention. But what really stood out to me is how much this robot looks and moves like some sort of bull or similar type of animal. Just watching the leg movements and its path out of the bushes had me waiting for some sort of predator animal to come out of nowhere and bounce. The biomickry in terms of stature and movement was really quite compelling.
One of the biggest walls in embedded software development is the integration of low-level drivers with higher-level middleware and application code, but silicon vendors are stepping up to bring it down.
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