DARPA builds robotic mule to help military in the field

U.S. military personnel can be expected to carry up to 100 pounds of equipment when in the field. This places a considerable amount of physical strain on individuals already in stressful situations, compounded by extreme weather conditions and other threats to their safety.

Researchers hope to change all that by using a "robotic mule" to lighten the load carried by servicemen and women. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working closely with Boston Dynamics to build an autonomous machine that can quite literally take that weight off their shoulders.

The mule is part of the Legged Squad Support System, or L3, that shares its origins with Boston Dynamics' Big Dog program. The current prototype, according to an article on the U.S. Army website, can support up to 400 pounds of gear, travel up to 20 miles an hour and has a series of sensors that allow it to track its human leaders.

"So not only can it perceive the world around it better, it can interact with the Marines better," said Brigadier General Mark Wise of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab during a demonstration last month. "Right now it sees a bush and thinks it's an object it can't go through. In the next 24 months, the initiatives will look at other ways for the sensors already on board to see these obstacles and go through [them]."

The four hydraulic-powered legs also enable the mule to traverse rocky terrain and even move through water and snow where wheeled devices encounter a great amount of difficulty. A fast-reacting balance system also helps to prevent it from being pushed over. If, however, the mule is knocked onto its side, it is capable of standing back up on its own.

Throughout the next two years DARPA's L3 program, innovative sensor technologies will allow the mule to move through increasingly difficult paths, aided by the flexibility achieved with new ways of seamlessly joining dissimilar metals. Advances in American manufacturing will literally help save lives around the world.

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