New DARPA robot could make Marine pack mules obsolete

Developed by DARPA and the robotics company Boston Dynamics for the US Marines, the Legged Squad Support System robot can carry up to 400 pounds over rough terrain.  

Youtube screenshot
A pair of DARPA Legged Squad Support System test robots make their way down an unpaved road.

The sure-footed mule, long a mainstay of US Marine operations in mountainous areas, may soon find itself replaced by a robot.

Developed by the USMC's Warfighting Lab, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and Boston Dynamics, the Legged Squad Support System (LS3) can walk up to 3mph for 20 miles, and can job for short bursts at 8mph, all while carrying up to 400 pounds. Knock it over, and it will stand up again. 

The LS3, or AlphaDog, as it is known, represents an improvement over Boston Dynamic's previous robo-mule, a smaller robot called BigDog. Wired's DangerRoom Blog describes the new features:

Now the ‘bot can obey instructions to follow people. The Marines connected the robot to the Marine Corps Tactical Robot Controller (TRC), a 10-pound touchscreen device a soldier or Marine can use to send the robot orders. That could be telling the AlphaDog to follow an infantry squad, or give a human operator the ability to take direct control if the ‘bot hits a rough patch. The ‘bot can also be given different “modes.” It can follow “tight” or in a corridor, and — in the future — automatically travel to waypoints.  

And while not exactly stealthy, the LS3 is also a good deal quieter than its predecessors. The Marine Corps Times notes that those standing close to BigDog needed headphones to muffle the robot's engine. 

The new robot could help Marines tote batteries, ammunition, water, and other heavy supplies. But BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow sees a sinister side to the ambling automaton: "I think you're supposed to imagine this thing being on your side, but when I see videos like this, I always find myself imagining what it would be like to be crouching in the underbrush with a couple of terrified children, trying to keep them silent while this thing motors through the uncanny valley around us."

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