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The Military Robotics Technology

Military's Robotic Pack Mule Gets $32M Boost 167

Posted by kdawson
from the now-to-develop-a-muffler dept.
coondoggie sends word that Boston Dynamics, maker of the BigDog robot we have been following for a while, has just been awarded a $32M DARPA contract to produce robotic "pack dogs" for the military. "What kind of robot will automatically follow a leader, carry 400 lbs. (182 kg) of military gear, walk 20 miles in all manner of weather, and go 24 hours without refueling? Well, we might soon find out as DARPA 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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Military's Robotic Pack Mule Gets $32M Boost

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  • by Kratisto (1080113) on Monday February 01, 2010 @08:17PM (#30989664)
    Cast Tensor's Floating Disk!
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by MRe_nl (306212)

      With the way the wars are going one might think "Tenser's Fortunes of War" (abj.6) would be more usefull, but the USmil seems to have a shocking shortage of serious spellcasters at hand.

    • For the fighter-heavy world of the US Military, I would think that portable holes and flying carpets would be more useful. I'd say bags of holding and haversacks would be useful, too, but in a firefight one wouldn't want a bullet accidentally blowing one of them up.
  • Money well spent? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by phy_si_kal (729421) on Monday February 01, 2010 @08:18PM (#30989670)
    Well, the Afghans have mules, that cost nearly 0 and already pass where Humvee's stop. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Military/2009/0504/p22s01-usmi.html [csmonitor.com]
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by TheKidWho (705796)

      Mules also happen to have their own logistics costs, are slower, less capable, and can not reach all the same terrains this robot can.

      Yes yes, we've all heard the joke, The Soviets used a pencil, NASA spent millions on inventing the space pen. (More of a myth actually, see: http://www.thespacereview.com/article/613/1 [thespacereview.com])

      • by jlowery (47102) on Monday February 01, 2010 @08:33PM (#30989818)

        Oh, come on. Do you think the complexity of these robots won't lead to breakdowns and glitches? And how cheap is it to replace a robot vs. a mule? It would be cheaper to add bionics to the mule.

        • by Wyatt Earp (1029) on Monday February 01, 2010 @08:37PM (#30989870)

          Was reading about mules in the Italian campaign (1943-44). Compared to a legged vehicle, they suck.

          There is the food aspect, vets and language. Yes, an Afghani mule for example will need a mule skinner than can speak the mule's native language, Dari or Pashtun (that covers like 90% of Afghanistan's mules).

          And if your mules are killed or if you need more, its easier to airlift in some robots than to train or find more mules.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Anonymous Coward

            Yet somehow, against the most advanced technology at the time, a bunch of mule-riding tent dwellers have fucked up the British, the Soviet, the American and the NATO armies time and time again.

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by Anonymous Coward
              Protip: the mules had nothing to do with it.
              • Of course they did. Bloody hard to paint a mule with radar.
                • But not with infrared heat detectors. There's probably things a methane sniffer could pick up too, not to mention the acoustic detectors listening for stubborn mules and stubborn pack drivers arguing with each other.

                  • by Fred_A (10934)

                    There's probably things a methane sniffer could pick up too, not to mention the acoustic detectors listening for stubborn mules and stubborn pack drivers arguing with each other.

                    On the bright side, no acoustic detectors will be required to detect the robotic mule which sounds like a pack of angry chainsaws and can be heard kilometres away even in a thunderstorm. This doubles as a safety feature so that innocent onlookers can safely move out of the way before it passes by, thus avoiding the view of the bizarre twin "half mimes" and the associated ear damage.

                    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

                      by Thing 1 (178996)

                      [...] sounds like a pack of angry chainsaws [...]

                      Thank you ever so much. I was just thinking, "It's been a while since I've rinsed nasally", and you helped with that -- except why did it have to be coffee? :)

                    • Thank you ever so much. I was just thinking, "It's been a while since I've rinsed nasally"

                      I think that would make a great sig.
            • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

              by Wyatt Earp (1029)

              Mules are used as pack animals. The USMC and Special Forces use them too.

              As for "tent dwellers", have you seen Afghanistan? Someone called it a nation of Alamos, folks there live in cities, towns and compounds with walls think enough to stop artillery.

            • Yet somehow, against the most advanced technology at the time, a bunch of mule-riding tent dwellers have fucked up the British, the Soviet, the American and the NATO armies time and time again.

              All forces listed by you were "fucked up" only in the same sense as e.g. US was "fucked up" in Vietnam - specifically, when one side uses unconventional warfare, and disregarding traditional laws of war (such as, well, not wearing uniform, using human shields, pretending to be a civilian, etc), and the other side is not willing to respond in kind and is averse to anything but light casualties even at extremely high ratios (e.g. 1 American for 50 Taliban fighters), then you get what you get. But go ahead, a

              • Its not as cut and dry as you make it - for instance the same well-trained Germans using the same tactics you described faired poorly against the Yugoslavian partisans, despite having some local support. Harsh methods and retaliation build more support for the guerrillas, so if you aren't successful in braking them early you end up in a worse position then before. Basically its a trade-off. The other main strategy is to "bribe" the populace while carefully going after the guerrillas i.e. the success of the
                • It all depends on your objectives. If you want to actually control the territory, then, sure, you need to be careful not to overstep it. If you just want to get rid of "bad guys", and aren't afraid to use scorched earth policy, that works because you don't really care how much the locals hate you - ultimately, there just won't be any remaining. Of course, the territory will then be unusable to you as well.

                  But we're speaking about Afghanistan here, and who actually needs it? At this point, it's really just h

                  • by Fred_A (10934)

                    But we're speaking about Afghanistan here, and who actually needs it?

                    I'm pretty sure the Afghans could find a use for it.

                  • I've read that the US dropped more munitions on North Vietnam in tonnage, than were dropped in the entire European theater of WWII by all sides. If that's the case, your scorched earth theory doesn't seem like it would work, since NVA came out on top of that one (meaning they survived until the American political machine couldn't handle the expense and bad PR).

              • by Thing 1 (178996)

                [...] when one side uses unconventional warfare, and disregarding traditional laws of war (such as, well, not wearing uniform, using human shields, pretending to be a civilian, etc)

                A coworker was telling me recently that the schools are trying to reduce teaching about our revolutionary forefathers, because of the tactics they used and how similar they are to the tactics being used against us in the two countries we're terrorizing.

                That's pretty sad: our administration wants to distance itself from its found

                • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

                  by Wyatt Earp (1029)

                  I know schools are reducing what is taught about the Founders because a good chunk of them were slave owners and all were white, and thats just not what we teach anymore.

                  As for the American Revolution using tactics similar to Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Hamas, etc. That just isn't true. There were very limited irregular forces used by both sides, the Loyalists did it a little more than the Colonists did, from what I've read.

                  There was no murdering civilians who didn't side with the revolutionaries, no beheadin

            • by jgtg32a (1173373)

              Yeah they "fuck up" everyone in the same way the Black Knight won, by refusing to quit; and the other side leaving.

          • And if your mules are killed or if you need more, its easier to airlift in some robots than to train or find more mules.
            Any particular reason they couldn't just train up mules at home and airlift them in?

            • If you train a mule and you don't need it, it keeps eating anyway, and you can't let up on the training in case you do eventually need it. Then you have to provision the plane that brings it to the front, and scoop the poop after the long trip.

              Once you build a mule-bot, you stick it in a box until you need it. It doesn't need fuel until it arrives in theater, and you don't need to hose down your aircraft after bringing it in.

            • There are few practical problems with your approach:

              1. Robots are 10 zillion times cooler than mules
              2. Robots cost a lot more than mules, stimulating jobs for workers.
              3. Robots breakdown more and when they breakdown they are much more expensive to fix thereby stimulating more jobs for workers.
              4. Robots are just way way cooler than mules, what general wants to spearhead the US military's advanced mule airlift program in the 21st century?

              I'm sure there are other reasons why your idea won't work, but that's of

          • by Alinabi (464689)
            The US military can airlift tanks half way around the world but they cannot air lift some English speaking mules from West Virginia?
          • by TheLink (130905)
            > There is the food aspect

            FWIW, robotic pack mules probably taste worse than conventional mules.
          • an Afghani mule for example will need a mule skinner than can speak the mule's native language

            What, how many commands do mules typically know? One of those keychain voice recorders ought to do if the soldiers really can't remember a half dozen or so new words (which I suppose they can).

        • by TheKidWho (705796) on Monday February 01, 2010 @08:43PM (#30989930)

          Yes, but the robot will get much cheaper over time if they are being purchased and R&D costs are paid. I would much rather see robotics technology pushed forward then provide a handout to mule breeders.

        • by zippyspringboard (1483595) on Monday February 01, 2010 @09:50PM (#30990488)
          Yeah really, just add some kevlar body armor, a camera, blinders, and a remote controlled stick with a carrot on the end of it!
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Ihmhi (1206036)

          Yes, but if a mule gets shot in the leg, you can't pull out a replacement part and fix it now can you?

        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          by gemada (974357)
          yes but the mule-itary industrial complex will always get its way in the end.
        • by Sir_Lewk (967686)

          The real reason any self-respecting slashdotter should be for these things is eventually this tech will trickle down into the civilan sector where we can actually start having fun with it.

          Badass robots... or farm animals. Hmm, really hard choice.... ;)

        • by mhajicek (1582795)
          What's the shelf life of a mule packed in storage, and how much space and maintenance does it need? How long can it operate out in the desert sun or arctic tundra? How do you get it to go toward the danger / scary noises when it doesn't want to? How do you remote control a mule? Can you fit a mule with a gas mask and hasmat suit to protect it from NBC weapons?
          • Yes - reliability is a big concern in meatbots vs metalbots - but have you read the earlier poster's comment about this metalbot sounding like a storm of chainsaws? Seems like there are some problems here: doesn't it seem like where soliders want to cover rough terrain on foot (i.e. where they can't airlift by helo or parachute, and can't drive in w/4x4's) that silence is probably real important? Granted donkeys make noise too, but I'm pretty sure it's cheaper to surgically silence a donkey than to engineer

      • Mules also happen to have their own logistics costs, are slower, less capable, and can not reach all the same terrains this robot can.

        May be, but that's at least ten years out. Having a robot that works as intended under ideal spec'd conditions is one thing, but having a robot that won't break down too frequently on the field and actually work as well as a mule under unpredictable conditions. That will be something else.

        That being said, you have to start somewhere. It's good that they're funding this. And it's good that they test this out in the field. It's a learning experience if nothing else. It's important that the military keeps on

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      But mules wouldn't line the pocketbooks of various surpanational military-industrial corporations with huge amounts of cash.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Umuri (897961)

      i'll bite.

      Mule: Requires food, water, and has the potential to get scared in combat or make noise when it should be stealthy due to being surprised. Also surprisingly vulnerable to lead bullets.

      Robot: requires maintenance, can resist bullets, requires recharging, and does not tire.

      Lets be generous: Food, shelter, drugs, etc, to keep the mule healthy would be about equal to maintenance on the robot.
      I'm being generous here, any sufficiently mass produced and sufficiently hardened military hardware requires s

      • by MichaelSmith (789609) on Monday February 01, 2010 @08:50PM (#30990000) Homepage Journal

        Can you eat a robot?

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by mlts (1038732) *

        The civilian applications of this are tremendous too. SAR (search and rescue) support in areas where even motorcycle transport is dicey (Moab, etc), moving portable gear (generators if the mule can carry them) to a desolate area after a disaster. Additional help for hikers to carry stuff to and from a remote camp. A group of hunters can send a robot back to main camp to pick up another set of kegs, so the main partiers don't have to stumble down a trail at night.

      • by daver00 (1336845)

        "...requires recharging..."

        BigDog runs on a 2-stroke petrol engine, its limbs are actuated by hydraulics which are controlled by computer. All you gotta do is fill up its tank, no time wasting and infrastructure dependent recharge. Yet another way in which the ever denounced ICE is superior to all battery alternatives.

      • You left out the big problem with horses and mules in a larger war: production.

        In WWII, the German army got less mobile as the war went on, because horses were getting harder to get, and they didn't have enough trucks. The US and Britain were able to build truck factories fast, and ramp up production to any desired extent in a few years, while the Germans were unable to do that with horses. Mass production pretty much requires standardized interchangeable parts, and you can't take a leg off one horse

    • by couchslug (175151)

      We use mules, but they aren't cheap and require food and water.

      http://abcnews.go.com/International/story?id=7537174&page=1 [go.com]

    • by homunq (30657) on Monday February 01, 2010 @09:00PM (#30990092) Homepage

      Mules run on partly celulosic biofuels, which they convert directly into mechanical energy at the point it's needed. They include advanced elastic shock-absorbers which actually return energy for the power stroke. They have autonomous capabilities and vision systems that put any robot to shame.

      Robotics is trying to imitate all of these aspects, and is probably making great strides. But if I want to carry something over a mountain pass, give me today's mule over the 8-years-from-now robotic mule any day. Wheels, propellors, jet engines, are a way to beat nature, because evolution isn't very good at those things. But four-legged travel has been optimized by nature (and slightly reoptimized by human breeding to carry burdens). You won't beat it with any foreseeable technology, and you won't make the unforeseeable come any faster with research in this area.

      • by jfengel (409917)

        They have autonomous capabilities and vision systems that put any robot to shame.

        A little too damned autonomous, if you've ever met one. I'll stick with the robot. They never spit at me.

      • Re:Money well spent? (Score:5, Informative)

        by ColdWetDog (752185) on Monday February 01, 2010 @10:56PM (#30991016) Homepage
        Heinlein had a quote (from I think 'The Green Hills of Earth') that went "Horses can make other horses, that's a trick tractors haven't learned yet". Doesn't exactly work with mules (since horse + donkey = mule), but you get the idea.

        Manufacturing costs are a lot lower.
      • by timeOday (582209)

        But if I want to carry something over a mountain pass, give me today's mule over the 8-years-from-now robotic mule any day.... You won't beat it with any foreseeable technology, and you won't make the unforeseeable come any faster with research in this area.

        Really? I forsee the day when the soldier doesn't even have to go into harm's way any more, just send the robot.

        Beat that with a mule.

      • by atamido (1020905)

        Wheels, propellers, jet engines, are a way to beat nature, because evolution isn't very good at those things. But four-legged travel has been optimized by nature (and slightly reoptimized by human breeding to carry burdens)

        This was my thought. Adding wheels to a flexible "leg" system would be far more energy efficient, stable, and simple than trying to make a full on 4 legged vehicle. I've seen off road vehicles that will go over just about anything using extremely variable hydraulic suspension systems for the wheels. Trying the same things with mechanical legs would have resulted in a painful death for the operators.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by lena_10326 (1100441)
      You probably commute to work and do all your shopping in a car (or perhaps the bus/train/whatever) which is a type of mechanical mule. How come it is that you don't use a horse and buggy for doing all those tasks? The answer is the same for both cases.
  • Robotic mules? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Guido del Confuso (80037) on Monday February 01, 2010 @08:24PM (#30989724)

    Well, they should have no problem at all finding the mountain wampus now. I just hope the project doesn't get canceled when they run low on smithore.

  • by jameson (54982) on Monday February 01, 2010 @08:32PM (#30989806) Homepage

    Anyway, if they get John Leeson to do the voice, I'm buying one.

  • by d474 (695126) on Monday February 01, 2010 @08:42PM (#30989922)
    If they wanted mules, they'd use mules. Problem is, it's kind of hard to ask your mule to scout ahead 100m, scan territory, and post an "all clear" message back to your squad, while providing live video feeds and fire support (it may even deploy it's own microUAV during maneuvers). Old No. 7 isn't going to do that for you.
  • So, that's the plan. The robotic mule will be used to haul basketloads of $1 trillion notes.

  • by Snufu (1049644) on Monday February 01, 2010 @09:27PM (#30990308)
    I'd build some good robot ass too.
  • by Animats (122034) on Monday February 01, 2010 @09:39PM (#30990392) Homepage

    This has been in the pipeline for the last year, and in fact Boston Dynamics had already won the trade study contract for the Legged Squad Support System, the "LS3". This is the next phase, the contract to build prototypes, which will be field tested.

    This isn't a research program, as BigDog was. The program is now in DARPA's Tactical Technology Office, which builds prototypes of weapon systems. The next step is volume production and deployment.

    So far, DARPA isn't discussing armament. Since the USMC is involved in this program, someone is almost certainly looking at that option. It's attractive as a weapons platform. Since it already has full inertial and GPS sensors, a weaponized version could easily have a stabilized gun, like a tank, so it could fire on the move and hit targets. There's also the possibility of integrating the "automated mortar" developed a few years ago. The "automated mortar" concept is that someone up at the sharp end designates a target, the firing data goes back to the gun, and the gun duly clobbers the selected target. That's what mortar squads do now, but lugging the gear around ties up too many people and slows up the operation. The automated mortar was too heavy to lug around on foot, and mounted on a vehicle, it duplicated existing heavier weapons. The LS3 is just the right size to move that thing around.

    So there's the LS3, trailing the squad, when someone spots something that needs to be destroyed. They point something at the target, data goes back to the LS3, and the LS3 quickly launches a mortar round, which arcs over the squad and lands on the target. No more target.

    And yes, the annoying buzzing sound will go away. That was just the off the shelf powerplant used in the experimental version. The production version will use a small Diesel engine. (The U.S. military is all-Diesel. Gasoline tankers have no place on the modern battlefield.)

    • Should totally name that project Rush as a tribute to Megaman.

    • Would be awesome if they made it wolf like with razor sharp fangs and glowing red eyes. Oh and if they roamed in packs. That would be some scary shit.

      I was looking for a skynet reference in this thread. Haven't seen it yet, but this technology is scary from a skynet perspective. (If not skynet a mad scientist!)
  • Next stop: Slash.

    http://myanimelist.net/character/1317/Slash

    (hey, I just wrote a post with "Slash Dot", while being gramatically and contextually appropriate. I should be given UberModPoints or something :-D )

  • $32 million sounds like a pittance to bring something like this to production ready. I'm glad to see something like this getting some of my tax dollars though. Wish more of them went for nuclear/alternative energy though.
  • it becomes a 400+ pound burden.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Faaln (1004586)
      So are two GIs who collapse from fatigue after marching eight hours through sand carrying over a hundred pounds of kit each.
      • by koan (80826) on Monday February 01, 2010 @11:42PM (#30991326)

        Soldiers recover, and they are trained for the workout, machines break down and that dog is loud as fuck when it's running even with a muffler...no parts to repair = 400+ pounds of junk, stick with the human soldier.

        • by Animats (122034)

          Soldiers recover, and they are trained for the workout, machines break down and that dog is loud as fuck when it's running even with a muffler...no parts to repair = 400+ pounds of junk, stick with the human soldier.

          That's what some old soldiers said about motor vehicles, around 1939 or so.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Tokerat (150341)
          As far as loud, I'm reading in other comments that the engine they used in the video from 2 years ago is much louder and less powerful than what'll go into the final version.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by dissy (172727)

          stick with the human soldier.

          How bout we let that human soldier decide.

  • by IonOtter (629215) on Monday February 01, 2010 @10:04PM (#30990626) Homepage

    Mules are quite intelligent.

    I've worked with pack horses, and horses can be incredibly stupid when they've got a pack on their back, but mules are very smart. They're sure-footed
    and can sense when the path ahead is too dangerous to travel, and if they don't wanna go, they just won't go.

    Mules are intelligent, which means the operator has to build a strong relationship with them, built upon mutual respect and trust. Not that I don't think our soldiers are capable of doing such a thing, but it's something you don't want them doing. Seeing your favorite mules getting blown to bits will be just as traumatic and harmful as seeing your buddies getting killed, maybe even worse, since people often build closer bonds with animals than they do with other humans.

    Also, one last thing is that when a mule is feeling cranky and wants to ruin your day, they won't just lash out like a stupid horse. Doc Waters warned us in class that they will target your belt-buckle and wait placidly until you're in range. No laid-back ears, no swishing tail, no sign of anger or aggression. You'll walk up and *KER-POW!*

  • fahrenheit 451 (Score:2, Insightful)

    by betogm (888444)
    It is a prenunce of book Fahrenheit 451 robotic dog?!
  • Something this technology can eventually do is help people with disabilities eventually get around without having to use a wheelchair. It would give people with disabilities the freedom to use robotic legs to be more self-reliant. I'm talking climbing stairs, getting in and out of cars without $25,000 modifications, and traversing airports independently. If you think going through TSA is bad now, imagine what they do to you if you need to go through with a metal chair. The problem that many people don't rea
  • I for one... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MikeURL (890801) on Monday February 01, 2010 @11:46PM (#30991344) Journal
    I won't ever forget the first time I saw the video of this thing walking. Up until that point I had assumed that robotics would plod along and maybe, just maybe, at some point in my lifetime they would develop something that could truly walk (not shuffle) in a straight line on level ground. Then, in one fell swoop, there was a robot that can not only walk but it can probably handle icy terrain better than I can.

    I guess that was when I started to appreciate, really, the concept of singularity. The point where things develop much much faster than you can comprehend. I imagine it will be a lot like that. One minute you think you have things roughly figured out and the next minute your robotic overlords are herding you into ships headed for the oort cloud.
  • Limited use (Score:2, Interesting)


    This has to be refueled every day?

    It goes 20 miles in 24 hours--or ~1mph? You could outrun it--and the squad that it's supporting, as they'll be tied to it or it'll get lost.

    Longer journeys might make it useful, but so much of it's own carrying capacity would be taken up by it's own fuel demands that it still wouldn't be able to go very far. Plus, it'll be big target--take one of these out, and the squad has to leave behind 400 pounds of gear, if it isn't destroyed already. If it can barely walk, it's
  • The Luggage.... (Score:2, Informative)

    by philwebs (704989)
    One of Sir Terry Pratchetts creations: The Luggage The Luggage is a large chest that follows Rincewind literally wherever he goes- even onto Roundworld, which Rincewind only visited virtually. It is made of sapient pearwood (a magical, intelligent plant which is nearly extinct, impervious to magic, and only grows in a few places outside the Agatean Empire, generally on sites of very old magic). It can produce hundreds of little legs protruding from its underside and can move very fast if the need arises.
  • by jayveekay (735967) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @06:26AM (#30992986)

    They had this way back in 1983 and all it took to run was a C64!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M.U.L.E [wikipedia.org].

  • "What kind of robot will automatically follow a leader, carry 400 lbs. (182 kg) of military gear, walk 20 miles in all manner of weather, and go 24 hours without refueling? Well, we might soon find out as DARPA 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."

    A camel.

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