When it comes to defining success in robotic design, the focus is often on how well the robot moves and reacts to changing topography and environments, as well as its ability to stay upright, get where it needs to go and pick itself back up if it falls. That last task was one of the biggest challenges of the 2015 DARPA Robotic Challenge, as we saw robot after robot fall, and be unable to get up.
Sometimes, though, design success or failure is determined by something more fundamental than task performance, as with the case of Alpha Dog, also known as the “Legged Squad Support System” (LS3) or the “robo-mule”. According to Military.com:
“As Marines were using it, there was the challenge of seeing the potential possibility because of the limitations of the robot itself,” [Warfighting Lab spokeman Kyle] Olson said. “They took it as it was: a loud robot that’s going to give away their position.”
Designed to carry up to 400 lbs of gear, interpret visual and verbal commands, and autonomously navigate a wide range of terrain, Alpha Dog showed it could handle those requirements.
Unfortunately, there was no getting around the fact that Alpha Dog made more noise than your neighbor’s garage-built go kart or a weed whacker on steroids. It’s not exactly what a military patrol is looking for when in the vicinity of hostile forces.
Nevertheless, Alpha Dog and its smaller and quieter sibling, Spot, represent an important step toward the practical use of autonomous platforms in defense and commercial applications. The integration of robotics, inertial navigation, visual and auditory sensors, untethered mobility, and more are astounding and give us a peek at the future of robotic assistants. Again from Military.com:
While it may seem as though years of work with the robot quadrupeds has wrapped up without a tangible result, Warfighting Lab officials said the Marine Corps did gain important insights about autonomous technology and its potential.
“We tend to play with things that are fanciful and strange,” Olson said. “Learning from it was a big part, and we’re still learning.”
Meanwhile, the lab has ongoing experiments featuring drones and other unmanned vehicles and are exploring uses for them including medical resupply and reconnaissance.
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