Military's robotic pack mule comes to life for $32M

DARPA robot should carry 400lbs over any terrain in any weather

Boston Dynamics robot
What kind of robot will automatically follow a leader, carry 400 lbs of military gear, walk 20 miles in all manner of weather and go 24 hours without refueling? Well, we might soon find out as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded a $32 million contract to build its Legged Squad Support System (LS3) which uses sensors and a GPS to walk along with soldiers across all manner of terrain in any weather without pulling any muscles. 

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Boston Dynamics will build the intelligent LS3 with one primary goal in mind: reduce the load military personnel have to carry in combat missions on difficult terrain.  The case could be made for the robot to be used in search and rescue missions or any application the movement requires lots of heavy equipment to hard-to-reach places. 

According to DARPA the LS3 has quite a number of key requirements: 

  • It must be capable of carrying sufficient payload capacity, range, endurance, and low noise signature for dismounted squad support, while keeping weight and volume scaled to the squad level. 
  • The robot must support all manner of walking, trotting, and running/ bounding and capabilities to jump obstacles, cross ditches, recover from disturbances and other discrete mobility features. The LS3 must be able to follow a leader between 5m and 100m ahead, in dynamic, cluttered environments with other moving soldiers in close proximity. 
  • It must have the ability to perceive and traverse its immediate terrain environment autonomously with simple methods of control.
  • The robot must understand simple soldier-to-LS3 interaction with minimal direct control of the platform's speed and heading (joy-sticking and tele-operating are examples of direct control). The vehicle must require minimal oversight or direct control (e.g. joystick control) from an operator.  Direct control modes should only be used for error recovery, and should not be needed more than 3 times per 24-hour operational period, for no more than 5 minutes at a time.   
  • The robot must be able to follow a leader between 5m and 100m ahead, in dynamic, cluttered environments with other moving soldiers in close proximity. 
  • The robot must be able to operate for arbitrarily long periods without GPS as well as be able to negotiate slopes up to 30 degrees fully loaded and go up steps up to 12 inches high.  
  • The robot must be able to wade through 36 inches of water.

The LS3 program is the follow on to DARPA-funded, Boston Dynamics-built BigDog robot - a four-legged robot t that can walk off-road on sand, rocks, mud and snow. Operating bots could be available by 2012. 

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