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.
After watching the video, I don't see how this robot is so quiet that soldiers can walk next to it and actually hear each other. Further, how is this not a detriment to them in the field. Wouldn't it draw enemy attention?