DARPA's robotic pack mule, the Legged Squad Support System (or LS3 for short) is now following orders and its master, going where no robot has gone before. In a recently published video, the impressive quadruped robot developed by Boston Dynamics climbs up and down hills, scrambles over logs, bobs and weaves through woods, and even takes an impromptu dip in a bog. Once outside the obstacle-ridden forest the LS3 picks up the pace with a somewhat inelegant gallop that betrays its mechanical nature.
Boston Dynamics' founder, Marc Raibert, has been described as the rock star of the robotics world. He made a name for himself at MIT, where he worked on some pretty amazing legged robots – some of which appeared in the background of a scene in the film adaptation of Michael Crichton's Rising Sun. Now his company is working on the follow-up to BigDog, a robot which hardly requires an introduction after its videos went viral a few years back.
According to DARPA "the Army has identified physical overburden as one of its top five science and technology challenges". Enter the LS3, nicknamed AlphaDog, designed to carry a squad's 400 pounds (181 kg) of gear for up to 20 miles (32 km) without stopping.
The LS3 produces ten times less noise than BigDog and features some other tweaks - like a barrel-shaped body - which allows it to easily roll over should it fall on its back or side. You can see just how effective this is in the latest video, when it accidentally stumbles and rolls down the side of a hill. It even lands on its feet despite falling into a fairly deep mud puddle.
Other improvements are demonstrated as well; it understands specific verbal commands and hand gestures, allowing soldiers to order the robot around in various situations. Its sensors also allow it to follow a leader even through a fairly dense, obstacle-ridden environment. A brief section in the video shows us the world from its perspective – a blocky facsimile similar to that of Google's driverless cars – which is accurate enough for the LS3 to find its way through the foliage. DARPA says it's smart enough to find its way to a designated GPS coordinate.
In more structured environments like urban areas, the LS3 is able to move much more quickly, revving up to a solid 7 mph (11.2 kph) trot. And despite relatively tight corridors, it knows when it can squeeze in with little room to spare. It's currently being tested at a military base, but next year it'll join a squad as part of the Marine Corps Advanced Warfighting Experiment.
If you're wondering how Marc Raibert earned his rock star status, let the following video speak for itself.