21st Century Pack Mule

Boston Dynamics, who many of you may know from Big Dog and other autonomous quadruped robots they have developed, released a new video a few days ago featuring their Legged Squad Support System (LS3) robot (as well as Friend of Pocobor Alex Perkins, the thespian/engineer who co-stars in the video).

The LS3 is essentially a pack mule for the future: it is meant to carry supplies for US soldiers and Marines in the field to both reduce their physical burden and also free up cognitive bandwidth for more important tasks. As such, it is designed to carry up to 400 pounds, walk 20 miles and operate for 24 hours without human intervention (other than voice commands to follow / stop / etc.).

From a mechatronics perspective, there are a number of interesting design challenges that an application like this poses. First of all, the dynamics and controls for a quadruped robot are considerably more complex than those for a wheeled or tracked equivalent. However, quadrupeds (or bipeds like humans, for that matter) can handle much rougher terrain than wheeled or tracked robots and this expanded mobility drastically increases their value. Ultimately the hope is that pack systems like the LS3 will be able to follow the soldier anywhere they are capable of going.

The second significant engineering obstacle centers around the the sensing and control systems required to follow the soldier and choose the best path given the upcoming terrain at any given time. There are considerable hardware, software and algorithmic issues that have to be addressed to arrive at a prototype robot like one in the video. There are also some interesting overlaps with the technology used for self-driving cars or any other mobile autonomous system.

Based on the examples that have been publicized over the past few years by Boston Dynamics and other groups pursing similar research and development, I have been deeply impressed by the pace of development of these types of systems. At this rate, even mountaineering porters might be feeling a little nervous about their job security soon…

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