DARPA Demonstrates Robot 'Pack Mules' - InformationWeek
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02:48 PM

DARPA Demonstrates Robot 'Pack Mules'

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."

[ What else is ahead for military IT? Military IT's Future Stresses Cloud, Mobile. ]

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.

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User Rank: Apprentice
9/14/2012 | 12:12:17 AM
re: DARPA Demonstrates Robot 'Pack Mules'
I would think it must rely on solar power to recharge in the field. We (will) ALL need solar power units that will allow us to communicate, function and survive on a higher level when we just don't have access to infrastructure electricity! With a solar power trunk you can have indefinite, rechargeable power in ANY setting...ANY environment! Power your laptop...cell phones...smart phones, cooking and refrigeration units, small appliances of all kinds...even monitors and lighting! You can own your own 40Watt/150 Watt output trunk-style solar suitcase...totally mobile and durable...with two, built-in, 20 Watt German Bosch solar panels...for just Seven Hundred and Fifty dollars (best price anywhere!). These units are MANDATORY for outdoorsmen and women and survivalists!! Hands down they're one of the most important tools you can have...allowing infinite mobile, portable, solar-rechargeable power ANYWHERE...under the sun!! Get yours NOW from the HomeLifeGoods website...or at a special price on eBay! PayPal accepted!
User Rank: Apprentice
9/12/2012 | 1:00:33 AM
re: DARPA Demonstrates Robot 'Pack Mules'
I'd rather put my money on an unmanned Kaman K-MAX synchropter that can lift a one-ton slung load and deliver it to a destination at over 60 mph.
User Rank: Apprentice
9/11/2012 | 8:49:49 PM
re: DARPA Demonstrates Robot 'Pack Mules'
How many millions did this thing cost taxpayers? We can't beat the Taliban who by the way use old fashoned donkeys. I suspect a real Donkey would destroy this lame creation [Mule] in actual use.Hmm lets se who can make it up this steep slope full of loose rocks and bolders. Makes me just want to cringe when the military whines about not having enough funding to protect us
User Rank: Apprentice
9/11/2012 | 8:14:20 PM
re: DARPA Demonstrates Robot 'Pack Mules'
Before being field tested in combat theater operations this equipment will need to be tested against a team of the most intellect soldiers who have been briefed on the system so they can surmise its vulnerabilities. The last things soldiers need is for an enemy combatant to call the robot to deliver the squads equipment to the enemy or for the robot to stall out if the soldier(s) it is following are killed because real soldiers die in real combat, but not the whole company as a rule.

I can't imagine any soldier though who would not cheerfully let a robot carry its spare gear, its own fuel. camping gear, spare ammunition, excess water rations, and extra days of food plus personal gear. Unfortunately the equipment might expand to be a challenge for both soldier and robot. As computers got faster computer programs got less efficient and more complex, which is not a desirable thing on a muddy battlefield or in a sandstorm.

What would probably make the most difference is actually following the NASA approach of lighter, especially for ammunition and grenades. There is no intrinsic reason why the ammunition itself cannot be a force multiplier. Where are the smaller, explosive laden bullets that don't need a heavy casing, but instead explode upon impact with a target and use a solid state fuel instead of gunpowder?
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