DARPA’s ‘robotic mule’ continues to make strides

In October, we took a look at an innovative endeavor from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In conjunction with the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab (MCWL) and Boston Dynamics, DARPA is developing a "robotic mule" to assist military personnel in the field.

Known as the Legged Squad Support System, or LS3, it can carry up to 400 pounds of equipment across treacherous terrain at roughly 20 miles per hour. A series of state-of-the-art sensors allow the mule to map out the surrounding area and navigate various obstacles.

For the last two weeks, DARPA and MCWL researchers has been putting it through the paces in the woods of central Virginia to show the progress being made on the project. A video posted online highlights some impressive feats on the part of the mule, including its ability to recognize and respond to voice commands, step over felled trees and follow a human leader throughout a simulated urban environment with narrow passageways.

At one point in the woods, the mule fell down a hill into a muddy ditch and righted itself with no assistance from a human being, then continued on its journey.

"This was the first time DARPA and MCWL were able to get LS3 out on the testing grounds together to simulate military-relevant training conditions," said Lt. Col. Joseph Hitt, DARPA program manager, in a press statement. "The robot's performance in the field expanded on our expectations, demonstrating, for example, how voice commands and 'follow the leader' capability would enhance the robot's ability to interact with warfighters. We were able to put the robot through difficult natural terrain and test its ability to right itself with minimal interaction from humans."

DARPA officials said they even expect U.S. warfighters to be able to use the mule for charging batteries in radios and other handheld devices in the field.

Advanced methods of bonding dissimilar metals will help researchers continue to make improvements in the LS3 program, building future mules that can handle increasingly difficult situations.

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