DARPA 'Pack Mule' Robot Takes Load Off Soldiers

Latest Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency robot, capable of carrying 400 pounds, travels through wooded area with Marine unit and responds to verbal commands in first trial.

Patience Wait, Contributor

December 19, 2012

3 Min Read

Defense Robots: Fast, Flexible, And Tough

Defense Robots: Fast, Flexible, And Tough

Defense Robots: Fast, Flexible, And Tough (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has completed a two-week, outdoor test of a prototype robotic pack mule.

DARPA's Legged Squad Support System (LS3) is focused on solving "a real military problem, the incredible load of equipment soldiers carry," said Lt. Col. Joseph Hitt, the LS3 program manager, in a briefing on the experiment. Hitt called the test "highly successful," but said it revealed challenges that remain in the areas of perception and "robustness."

Troops are frequently loaded down with 50 pounds or more of gear, posing a risk of injury. DARPA's goal is to have LS3 carry up to 400 pounds and be capable of walking up to 20 miles under its own power, without human intervention, for up to 24 hours. The four-legged robot also can function as an auxiliary power source for recharging radios and other handheld devices.

The exercise, at Fort Pickett in Virginia, was intended to evaluate how well the LS3 could integrate with a Marine unit. It included the first tests of the robot's ability to respond to verbal commands and to operate at night. The Marine unit leader gave the robot GPS coordinates for a destination, and it was able to get there, navigating around obstacles, Hitt said.

[ For more on DARPA robots, read DARPA Demos Inexpensive, Moldable Robots. ]

Ongoing challenges with LS3's development involve mobility, perception, and human-robot interaction, but raw processing capability hasn't been an issue. "We take commercial optics and processing, stack them, and they provide all the processing power we need," Hitt said.

DARPA is developing algorithms for LS3 that assess different terrains and weather conditions and respond appropriately. The robot's perception system, its "eyes," uses a laser range-finder, specialized cameras and stereo vision to track its human leader and avoid obstacles.

The test took place in a rugged, wooded environment. LS3's next test, in March, will be in a desert, where the monotone surroundings might prove more difficult for the robot to "read." Over the next two years, the LS3 will be tested in other settings, including the mountains.

The robot's durability also will be tested. "We need to make sure the platform is robust enough to handle the abuse the Marines will give it," Hitt said. In use, the LS3 will fall over "again and again," he added.

DARPA is funding the research and development of a variety of robot form factors, including its Cheetah robot, which set a world speed record earlier this year when it sprinted at 28.3 miles per hour. The LS3 isn't nearly as fast. In a demo a few months ago, DARPA said it moves at 1 mph to 3 mph and can "accelerate" to 5 mph.

The five-year LS3 program has a budget of $54 million, part of which is funded by the Marine Corps. The LS3 will undergo field tests quarterly.

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Patience Wait


Washington-based Patience Wait contributes articles about government IT to InformationWeek.

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