Four-legged robots will carry soldiers' gear in rough terrain.
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The Army has identified the sheer weight of all the gear soldiers must carry, often 100 pounds or more, as one of the top five science and technology challenges facing the service.
Now, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) may be able to offer some relief. Monday, the agency demonstrated a four-legged robot designed to serve as a "pack mule" for troops in the field. The demonstration was conducted at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Virginia.
Developed by DARPA's Legged Squad Support System (LS3) program, these robots are intended to carry up to 400 pounds of a squad's gear while following them through rough terrain, and follow verbal and visual commands.
"The vision for LS3 is to combine the capabilities of a pack mule with the intelligence of a trained animal," Army Lt. Col. Joe Hitt, DARPA's LS3 program manager, said in a written statement. Each robot carried a 325-pound load during the demonstration, Hitt told InformationWeek in an email.
"The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos, and DARPA director, Arati Prabhakar, watched live feeds on an LCD screen from sensors onboard the robot as it tracked the Marine leading the exercise across terrain and over or around obstacles," Hitt said. "In this way, the guests were able to see how the robot processes perception and autonomous behaviors."
While the robotic mules will never achieve the speed of Cheetah, DARPA's four-legged robot that just set a world speed record, they will be able to keep up with troops in the field. The mules can walk from 1 to 3 mph, trot over uneven terrain, and accelerate to a 5-mph jog, Hitt said, with an eventual goal of being able to run 7 mph over flat ground. They also can right themselves and regain their feet if they are knocked over.
The demonstration also showed the robot's ability to follow troops, picking its own path and allowing them to concentrate on their own mission. The intent is to provide the robot with the capability to follow a human's trail as closely as possible, select its own route within set limits, or use GPS coordinates to navigate to a destination.
"Autonomy is an infinite-variable problem," Hitt said. "For [Monday's] demonstration, the Marine leading the exercise set the boundaries within which the LS3 robot could make autonomous decisions. Those boundaries reduced the autonomy challenge to a discrete set of variables that could be solved by the robot. The Marine navigated a path while the robot autonomously followed the Marine on that path. The robot was not required to make decisions about the global path, which would be a very challenging autonomy problem."
DARPA and the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL) have started a two-year testing cycle, with the first jointly hosted test scheduled for December 2012, and continuing approximately once every three months. The final test will embed the robot mule with a squad during an operational exercise.