As someone who grew up dreaming of a galaxy far, far away, watching the video released by DARPA reminded me of the AT-ATs (all-terrain armored transports) prominently displayed in the second and third installments of the Star Wars film series. I wonder if you will agree.
The Legged Squad Support System (LS3) is a prototype designed to help dismounted military personnel carry their gear though all types of terrain. It can carry up to 400 pounds of distributed weight. And, with the latest prototype, engineers have given the LS3 some decidedly non-robotic characteristics. The four legs, designed much like a human or animal leg, with a bendable “knee” joint move in tandem pairs and go at a pace of 1 to 7 mph depending on the type of surface. I don’t imagine it does well on kitchen tile, but the video shows it climbing a rocky hill, traversing a dirt road and moving through dense brush. And, just like a sentient being, when tipped or knocked over, it simply sets itself to center and stands up.
Funding from DARPA and the US Marine Corps
Teams from Boston Dynamics, Bell Helicopter, AAI Corporation, Carnegie Mellon (Go Tartans!), the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Woodward HRT worked almost three years to get to the current prototype with funding from DARPA and the US Marine Corps. This version of the LS3 is much quieter than earlier versions. Army Lt. Col. Joe Hitt, a DARPA program manager, said “The LS3 is now roughly 10 times quieter than when the platform first came online, so squad members can carry on a conversation right next to it, which was difficult before.”
Like the soldiers the LS3 is engineered to help, it can follow verbal and visual commands so that it can take a certain path, follow in similar fashion but not on the same path, or simply go to a point based on pre-set GPS coordinates. Watching these capabilities, it is easy to imagine how technology like the LS3 can enable a dismounted unit in a volatile situation. In addition to the extra supplies, the ability to help carry out a wounded soldier to a pick-up point and return delivering supplies could keep a unit stocked while preserving human life. Another benefit of the LS3 is the ability to charge batteries for hand-held radios or communication devices by serving as an auxiliary power source.
In fact, as long as they keep the LS3 clear of snowspeeders and Ewoks, it looks as though the two-year test cycle and refinement platform will only serve to improve and expand the capabilities and possibilities for this “headless pack mule.”