A Robotic Menagerie of Mules, Dogs, Cheetahs and Wildcats
With today's Marines and Soldiers lugging equipment approaching 100 pounds, their effectiveness is being compromised. Military researchers are looking for ways to reduce this load, freeing the fighters to do their primary function: fight. Within a few years, quadruped robots, designated as “robotic mules”, may accompany troops, bearing burdens of up to 400 pounds each.
DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, whose mission is to maintain the U.S. Military's technological superiority, has been funding various robotic mule programs with Boston Dynamics since at least 2005. Boston Dynamics is an engineering and robotics design company spun off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). DARPA's annual budget is about $3.2 billion.
The first robotic mule was called BigDog because of its dog-like gait when walking. Wheels and even tracks would not take these robots where they needed to go, namely wherever soldiers go. BigDog can run, climb and carry loads up to 340 pounds and, though it has extensive capabilities to automatically sense terrain and correct for slippage and uneven ground, it receives its high-level actions via radio signals from a human operator using an OCU (operator control unit). The operator can start, steer, set the speed and stop BigDog. It can also be told to squat. Its average speed for a trot is 3.5 mph (about the same speed as the first tanks in World War One), but has reached 7 mph bounding in controlled lab tests. Successful trials in the lab and out in the field have set the stage for the next evolution of the robotic mule, the AlphaDog.
Big Dog in Action
Big Dog Tossing Cement Blocks
The militarized version of BigDog has a suitably militarized name: the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), though it is also known as AlphaDog, a bigger and more capable version of BigDog. By early 2014, AlphaDog must be able to carry a load of 400 pounds for 20 miles within 24 hours without refueling. At that point, AlphaDog will be embedded with Marines in field exercises. Currently, AlphaDog can already follow a human using its stereoscopic “eyes”, distinguishing between rocks, trees and people, without an operator continually controlling it. Efforts are underway to refine its “eyes” and “brain” to distinguish a particular individual as its “master”. Outdoor testing has begun as can be seen in the accompanying video. AlphaDog is indeed alarmingly adorable and, at the same time, somewhat frightening.
Additional capabilities are also being investigated:
“Ears”, or hearing sensors, to allow squad members to order it to go, stop, squat, sit, come here, etc.
Using AlphaDog as a remote auxiliary power source to recharge soldiers' batteries on extended patrols.
The goal is to have a robot with the responsiveness of a trained animal and the carrying capacity of a mule. Judging from the videos, they'll need to make it a lot quieter, too.
AlphaDog in the Lab
Boston Dynamics is also working on the Cheetah, a four-legged robot that can run faster than any other legged robots. While BigDog's fastest speed in the lab is 7 mph, the Cheetah can 28 mph, shattering the 23-year-old record of 13 mph set by MIT in 1989. The next step is to get Cheetah out in the field and untethered. Boston Dynamics say 28 mph is “a good start”. How much faster? They haven't said, although their treadmill can exceed 50 mph.
Cheetah in Action
September 2012 Update
Apparently the version known as “Alpha Dog” has been rechristened “Big Dog” and is or has been undergoing tests outdoors by the Marines. Though the news release mentions it can carry 400 lbs for 20 miles without refueling, it is not absolutely clear that that those are its current capabilities.
And Now... Wildcat
Wildcat, unveiled by Boston Dynamics in October 2013, is slower than Cheetah, but it is untethered, a major advance. Wildcat (see video) is capable of galloping a 4-minute mile (16 mph).
Getting even further out there is project Avatar. In the movie Avatar, a soldier's mind is linked with a genetically engineered alien's body. In DARPA's version, a soldier's mind controls an android (a humanoid-shaped robot), which can do dirty work like “room-cleaning”, “sentry” and “combat casualty recovery”, et al. They'll need to develop interfaces and algorithms to allow the soldier to “partner” with the robot and, not incidentally, build a bipedal robot capable of carrying out the soldier's thought-controls. Currently, both the movie and the robot are science fiction, but $7 million was recently allotted to the project. Judging from BigDog, AlphaDog and Cheetah, the robot may not remain science fiction for long. And think of all the uses Avatar technology could be put to. Yes, think about it.