DARPA asks Boston Dynamics to build enhanced version of legged infantry-support robot

Posted by John Keller

ARLINGTON, Va., 20 Sept. 2013. A U.S. military project to develop a donkey-sized legged robot to help infantry warfighters haul ammunition, food, and other gear through rugged terrain is moving ahead with a research contract this week.

Robotics experts at unmanned vehicles expert Boston Dynamics Inc. in Waltham, Mass., will develop an enhanced version of the company's Legged Squad Support System (LS3) robot under terms of a $10 million contract awarded Wednesday by unmanned vehicles scientists at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va.

Boston Dynamics is developing the four-legged LS3 to help Army and Marine Corps infantry to carry as much as 400 pounds of a squad’s load, follow squad members through rugged terrain, and interact with troops in a natural way, similar to a trained animal and its handler, DARPA officials say.

The semi-autonomous LS3 eventually could to go through the same terrain the squad goes through without hindering the squad’s mission. The robot also could serve as a mobile auxiliary power source to the squad, so troops can recharge batteries for radios and handheld devices while on patrol.

The legged robot first was demonstrated outdoors in January 2012 by climbing and descending a hill and exercising its perception capabilities.

In the second phase of the LS3 program, robotics experts at Boston Dynamics will develop an enhanced version of the LS3 system with increased reliability and usability, enhanced survivability against small arms fire, and a quiet power supply to support stealthy tactical operations.

Today’s infantry warfighter can be saddled with more than 100 pounds of gear, resulting in physical strain, fatigue, and degraded performance, DARPA researchers point out. The Army has identified physical overburden as one of its top five science and technology challenges.

The latest contract to Boston Dynamics is part of a two-year effort expected to culminate in the LS3 robot's participation in a planned military exercise. Boston Dynamics is working with the Army and Marine Corps to provide the LS3 with a suite of autonomy settings, including leader-follower tight, leader-follower corridor, and go-to-waypoint.

Leader-follower tight has the LS3 follow as closely as possible to the path its leader takes. Leader-follower corridor has the robot stick to the leader but gives it freedom to make local path decisions. Go-to-waypoint, meanwhile, has the robot use its local perception to avoid obstacles on its way to a designated GPS coordinate. Boston Dynamics experts also are working to enable squad members to speak commands to LS3.

On the contract awarded this week, Boston Dynamics experts will do the work in Waltham, Mass., and should be finished by 31 March 2015. For more information contact Boston Dynamics online at www.bostondynamics.com, or DARPA at www.darpa.mil.

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