September 22, 2012
As the military looks for new and better ways to become lighter, more highly mobile and lethal, research continues looking into a number of projects that will allow our forces in the near future to better shoot, move and communicate on tomorrow’s battlefields.
One such innovation is the Boston Dynamics-built LS3 “Alphadog,” a robotic, four-legged craft that has recently been improved by developers to be stealthier, more intelligent, and quieter. LS3 stands for “Legged Squad Support System.”
The military’s aim is to create an Alphadog capable of carrying military gear for a squad of soldiers (about 400 pounds’ worth) at least 20 miles without needing a break, according to the online publication IEEE Spectrum.
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“We’ve refined the LS3 platform and have begun field testing against requirements of the Marine Corps,” said Army Lt. Col. Joe Hitt, a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. “The vision for LS3 is to combine the capabilities of a pack mule with the intelligence of a trained animal.”
Stealth is a concept that is of great interest to the Army and Marine Corps when moving troops around a combat zone, and the latest version of the LS3 is better able to accomplish that part of the mission, according to reports.
Lightening the soldier’s load
“LS3’s predecessor, BigDog, had a well-deserved reputation for sounding like a swarm of giant angry robotic bees thanks to the gas engine powering the hydraulics. In practice, this amount of noise will either send your enemies running in terror, or draw them right to you,” writes Evan Ackerman for the Spectrum.
According to a DARPA news release regarding the project:
Today’s dismounted warfighter can be saddled with more than 100 pounds of gear, resulting in physical strain, fatigue and degraded performance. Reducing the load on dismounted warfighters has become a major point of emphasis for defense research and development, because the increasing weight of individual equipment has a negative impact on warfighter readiness.
The Army, DARPA says, has identified physical overburden as a top five science and technology challenge, so – as a way to reduce troops’ combat loads – the agency “is developing a four-legged robot…to integrate with a squad of Marines or soldiers.”
The new ‘bot, likened to a mechanical pack mule, is being designed to carry hundreds of pounds of gear “through rugged terrain.” It is also being programmed to “interact with troops in a natural way, similar to a trained animal and its handler.”
Developers and the military want a robot that will “go through the same terrain the squad goes through without hindering the squad’s mission,” says the news release. “The robot could also serve as a mobile auxiliary power source to the squad, so troops can recharge batteries for radios and handheld devices while on patrol.”
Robots are already in use in combat zones. Army and Marine units have used them, for example, to hunt for roadside bombs in both Iraq and Afghanistan, with decent results.
Ten years in the making
DARPA said an LS3 prototype completed its first outdoor assessment test, adding the robot demonstrated its mobility “by climbing and descending a hill and exercising its perception capabilities.”
“A two-year, platform-refinement test cycle began in July 2012, with Marine and Army involvement, culminating in a planned capstone exercise where LS3 should embed with Marines conducting field exercises,” said the agency.
“During this period, DARPA seeks to finish the development of and refine LS3’s technologies to provide a suite of autonomy settings, including leader-follower tight, leader-follower corridor and go-to-waypoint.”
The agency said the LS3 project was the culmination of a decade’s worth of research into perception and autonomy.