Robot to serve as fu­ture mil­i­tary’s “pack mule”


The warfighter who car­ries up to 100 pounds of equip­ment on his back is ex­pected to get re­lief from the cum­ber­some weight, of­fi­cials at the De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency (DARPA) say. It’s not just any robot. DARPA’s semi-au­tonomous Legged Squad Sup­port Sys­tem – also known as the LS3 – will carry 400 pounds of warfighter equip­ment, walk 32 kms at a time, and act as an aux­il­iary power source for troops to recharge bat­ter­ies for ra­dios and hand­held de­vices while on pa­trol.

Now in tri­als, the “pack mule” robot might have numer­ous func­tions, but its pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity is to sup­port the warfighter, said Army Lt Colonel Joseph K. Hitt, Pro­gramme Man­ager in DARPA’s tac­ti­cal tech­nol­ogy of­fice.

“It’s about solv­ing a real mil­i­tary prob­lem: the in­cred­i­ble load of equip­ment our sol­diers and Marines carry in Afghanistan to­day,” Hitt said. The con­se­quences of that kind of load can be soft-tis­sue in­juries and other com­pli­ca­tions, he added.

And as the weight of their equip­ment has in­creased, so have in­stances of fa­tigue, phys­i­cal strain and de­graded per­for­mance, of­fi­cials have noted. Re­duc­ing the load warfight­ers carry has be­come a ma­jor point for re­search and devel­op­ment, DARPA of­fi­cials say, be­cause the in­creas­ing weight of equip­ment has a neg­a­tive ef­fect on warfighter readi­ness.

DARPA’s five-year, $54 mil­lion LS3 project be­gan in Septem­ber 2009, and now is un­der­go­ing tri­als in the field. The LS3 must be­come fa­mil­iar with dif­fer­ent types of ter­rain, from wooded ar­eas to deserts, and with vary­ing weather con­di­tions such as rain and snow, Hitt ex­plained.

The LS3 pro­to­type com­pleted its first out­door as­sess­ment this Jan­uary, demon­strat­ing its mo­bil­ity by climb­ing and de­scend­ing a hill and ex­er­cis­ing its per­cep­tion ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

Fol­low­ing a “highly suc­cess­ful” trial at Fort Pick­ett near Black­stone, Vir­ginia, ear­lier this month, Hitt said, the robot worked with the Marine Corps Warfight­ing Lab­o­ra­tory there and devel­oped ad­di­tional be­hav­iours.

The robot’s sen­sors al­low it to nav­i­gate around ob­sta­cles at night, ma­noeu­vre in ur­ban set­tings, re­spond to voice com­mands, and gauge dis­tances and di­rec­tions. The LS3 also can dis­tin­guish dif­fer­ent forms of veg­e­ta­tion, Hitt said, when walking through fields and around bushes. With the abil­ity to avoid logs and rocks, the LS3’s in­tel­li­gent foot place­ment on rough ter­rain is a key el­e­ment, he said.

The next trial will chal­lenge the robot with the desert ter­rain at Twen­ty­nine Palms Marine Corps Base in Cal­i­for­nia, and sub­se­quent tri­als will fol­low ev­ery three months, Hitt said.

“The vi­sion is a trained an­i­mal and its han­dler,” he said, adding that a squad leader would learn 10 ba­sic com­mands to tell the robot to do such things as stop, sit, fol­low him tightly, fol­low him on the cor­ri­dor, and go to spe­cific co­or­di­nates. The tech­nol­ogy of the robot fo­cuses on mo­bil­ity, per­cep­tion and hu­man-robot in­ter­ac­tion,” Hitt said.

With the ex­pec­ta­tion of de­liv­er­ing the first LS3 to a Marine Corps squad in two years, the pro­gramme cul­mi­nates a decade of re­search and devel­op­ment. Yet it still needs some tweaks, Hitt ac­knowl­edged.

“We have to make sure the robot is smart like a trained an­i­mal,” he said. “We need to make sure it can fol­low a leader in his path, or fol­low in its own cho­sen path that’s best for it­self. The in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the leader and the robot [must be] in­tu­itive and nat­u­ral.”

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