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Meet Boston Dynamics' LS3 – the latest robotic war machine

On first viewing Boston Dynamics' latest creation, the LS3 (Legged Squad Support System), I could not help but be taken back to the AT-AT (All Terrain Armoured Transport) walker, as depicted in the Star…

The Legged Squad Support System has been designed to accompany war fighters into battle. Boston Dynamics

On first viewing Boston Dynamics' latest creation, the LS3 (Legged Squad Support System), I could not help but be taken back to the AT-AT (All Terrain Armoured Transport) walker, as depicted in the Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back.

But it is the AT-TE (All Terrain Tactical Enforcer) walker that appears in Attack of the Clones which strikes the most eerie resemblance to the LS3 concept, as the two images below demonstrate.

The AT-TE is a six-legged walker that appears in Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, and The Clone Wars multimedia campaign. starwars.wikia.com

Boston Dynamics' LS3 Concept. Boston Dynamics

Star Wars toys have become, it seems, real-world creations. The only discernible difference is that the AT-TE is a six legged beast, while the LS3 has been dubbed the “packed mule”.

According to Boston Dynamics - which made its name with the development of the BigDog quadruped robot in 2005 - the LS3 has been designed to accompany war fighters into battle, carrying 180kg payloads and freeing up troops that would otherwise be carrying such equipment themselves.

The demonstration video below gives a sense of the LS3 in action.

LS3 - Legged Squad Support System Demonstration Video.

One cannot help thinking this packed mule could serve a variety of functions in a war, as its real-life counterpart did in the Great Wars.

In other words, the LS3 won’t just be carrying the necessities of water, food, shelter and medical supplies – it’s more than likely it will be carrying the instruments of war.

Scope creep will dictate that the so-called “payloads” being carried might well include artillery ammunition. What you’ve then got is not only a transport vehicle but a tactical enforcer for the army and marines that could replace soldiers at the war-front altogether.

This machine, which at times is reminiscent of a modern day centaur (compare the images below), also puts a whole new connotation to the idea of a suicide bomber.

Centaur skeleton of human and equine bone, on display at the International Wildlife Museum in Tucson, part of an art installation by sculptor Bill Willers. Built by Skulls Unlimited International, Inc. Sklmsta

The LS3 Dynamic Robot. Unmanned Systems Technology

Earlier this month, Army Lt. Col. Joe Hitt, DARPA and the US Marine Corps’s (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) program manager said:

[t]he vision for LS3 is to combine the capabilities of a pack mule with the intelligence of a trained animal.

The LS3 is capable of tracking certain visual and oral commands and uses GPS (Global Positioning Systems) and computer vision to guide itself.

Until the latest iteration of prototyping it was difficult for soldiers to hold a conversation near the LS3 without the robot picking up the discussion and acting on the voice commands.

But the new LS3 has overcome these challenges. Additionally, it now comes with a 32km range in between refuels and can operate for a whole day without stopping.

At the same time it suffers from no psychological shortcomings, it does not bleed, and is capable of lifting itself up after being turned on its side.

Under the hood

LS3 is a dynamic robot that has been funded by DARPA, bringing together an interdisciplinary team of experts, including engineers and scientists from Bell Helicopter, AAI Corporation, Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, and Woodward HRT.

At its demonstration launch last month, the legged robot completed trotting and jogging mobility runs, perception visualisation and a soldier-bounded autonomy demonstration.

Anyone from the engineering fraternity watching the demonstration video at the top of this article would be awed at what has been achieved in the space of two years - beyond that of other Boston Dynamic creations such as the Cheetah (see video below), which can reportedly run faster than Usain Bolt.

Boston Dynamics' “Cheetah” holds the landspeed record for legged robots.

And of course there’s LS3’s famous predecessor, BigDog, the most advanced rough-terrain robot on Earth:

BigDog in action.

For the average citizen, understanding how the LS3 actually works is something of a mystery, as it looks all too alive. The following are just a few of its main bits and pieces:

  • On-board computer: this is capable of sensing, actuator control and communications

  • Control system: this keeps the robot balanced, navigates and regulates its energetics as there are changes to environmental conditions

  • Batteries: these are long-lasting lithium polymer batteries

  • Remote operation: wireless communications allow for remote operation and data logging

  • Legs: a range of motion and climbing performance is possible with dynamic locomotion gaits powered by electric motors

  • Sensors for locomotion: these offer joint position, joint force, ground contact, ground load sensor detection

  • Other sensors: these monitor the internal state of the robot, such as its hydraulic pressure, oil temperature, engine functions, battery charge etcetera

  • Perception: the LS3 is equipped with environmental awareness and knowledge of rough-terrain (cold, hot, dirty and wet environments)

  • Gyroscope: this is a device for measuring or maintaining orientation, based on the principles of angular momentum

  • GPS: the LS3 uses a global positioning system for navigation

  • LIDAR (light detection and ranging): this optical remote sensing technology is used to measure the distance to a target by illuminating it with light

  • Stereo Vision System: visible/infra-red (IR) cameras and illuminators provide a variety of views from the robot

Now, putting all those features together, we have a dynamic robot that can perceive its environment and react accordingly.

The aim of these uninhabited ground drones is to be able to go anywhere people and animals can go, whether the terrain be rock fields, mud, sand, vegetation, railroad tracks, up slopes or stairways.

It would be no stretch of the imagination to think these robots, that can travel up to 11km/h on a flat surface, might one day find themselves policing our streets and neighbourhoods.

But the feature that is the stuff of nightmares is the drone’s ability to follow a human leader and track members of a squad through rugged terrain. This may one day lead to drones autonomously tracking down people from “most wanted” lists in suburbia.

Our children will be raised in a world where their nightmares roam real streets, and the line between detecting sci-fi from reality will be blurred.

Even the best laid plans go awry.

While Chewbacca’s walker in Return of the Jedi moved through the forest, firing laser blasts at unsuspecting stormtroopers, and destroying other Imperial walkers, there won’t be any Chewies in these drones, just a whole lot of artificial intelligence.

These mechanical monsters might help turn the tide of battle during wars on Earth, so long as they are driven by those on the right side. And that is an entirely different question, isn’t it?


The author would like to thank her fellow collaborator Dr MG Michael, previously an honorary senior fellow at the University of Wollongong, NSW, Australia, for his insights and valuable input on the initial draft of this article.

Join the conversation

18 Comments sorted by

  1. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    Typical Pentagon. Spend a billion dollars developing a robot mule when they could just use...a mule.

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    1. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      Still not getting it either Mat? This is a machine that could be used as a weapons platform with some very basic modification, such as fitting .50 callibre machine gun. It could then be programmed to enter remote or rugged terrain to hunt out and engage any 'hostile' human beings, in any country, including the good old U.S. of A. or Australia for that matter. If such areas were deemed no-go zones for any humans, even those who wish to live in peace and just be left alone, then you must surely see…

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    2. David Healy

      Retired

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      The expression "typical Pentagon" is unfortunate. What kind of genetically-modified mule did you have in mind that can emulate the performance of this machine?

      Most Australians will recall the US-Australian alliance in World War II. Few will recall that Australia came out on the short end of a trade war with the US in the late 1930s. At one stage, Australian businessmen were refused right of entry to the US. For a brief period, Australia managed to get itself off the US most-favoured-nation trading list. Only one other nation achieved that distinction at the time - Nazi Germany.

      Criticism of these machines on technical or any other grounds is fair enough. Mocking the proponents of the machines serves no useful purpose. I'd regret a return to US-Australian relationship of the late 1930s, a situation that was worsened, in part, by inane commentary on both sides of the Pacific.

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    3. Joe Gartner

      Eating Cake

      In reply to Ian Donald Lowe

      We have these machines now, they're called armoured vehicles. The nightmare scenario about machine kill-bots should be kept in perspective. How could they possibly be more lethal than a section of infantry and what happens when they run out of battery... Or a bolt comes loose?

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    4. Richard Koser

      Dude

      In reply to Ian Donald Lowe

      Ian, I'm thinking of a genetically modified animal that's a cross between a donkey and a horse. Oh wait, that's a mule.

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  2. Steve Davis

    Brian Surgeon

    A multi million dollar robot that likely can be brought to it's knees by a very cheap cable strung about 1 metre off the ground.

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    1. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Steve Davis

      It can get up by itself off the ground after being knocked over, it is obviously not as easy to destroy as people think, I mean to assume that they havent thought of this is silly to say the least.

      Although a grenade could take off one of its legs and its down but its not as easy as "Trip wire"

      These drone's are the most freakish looking but not the best, check out the small individual flying drones america and china are developing - they will cause damage

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    2. Steve Davis

      Brian Surgeon

      In reply to Michael Shand

      It might be able to get up, but getting up and getting past are two different things

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    3. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Steve Davis

      Sorry to disappoint you Steve but those legs, if straightened right out would raise the 'belly' of the machine to at least 2 metres. These 'legs' can also be kicked out to the side above that height and placed over the wire. Bifocal 'vision' gives the machine a 3D 'vision' that allows the processer to judge distances and pick out terrain texture differences, so the whole process would be done as close to the trip wire as possible and very slowly and gently, one wobbly step at a time. Once over the…

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  3. Jason Bryce

    logged in via Twitter

    These machines are amazing. The big downside is, like drones, they are a huge propaganda tool for the enemy.
    In Star Wars and all science fiction its always the evil empire that uses machines to fight and kill the good guys. Usually they use machines because they dont have the support of the people but they have plenty of money and resources.
    That's why I hope Australian diggers never have to fight alongside these machines.

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  4. Seán McNally

    Market and Social Researcher at eris strategy

    The first of anything are rather pathetic; the first cars were not as good as a horse. It will be the machines that come after this and those developed along the same lines that will be truly amazing in what they can do and the innovations they spawn. Like many military minded developments it will be the non-military uses that will shape our future.

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  5. alfred venison

    records manager (public sector)

    it would be vulnerable to any hand held anti-tank weapon. supposedly, being a squad support asset, it would be well screened by friendly infantry from enemy hand held anti-tank weapons. the potential for booby traps then engaged my imagination. the palestinians took out an israeli tank once by weakening a stone bridge & then tricking the tank crew into crossing over the bridge.

    i know colin powell said they don't do forests, they do deserts, but the old hole in the ground covered over with…

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    1. Peter Hewson

      Citizen

      In reply to alfred venison

      Alfred the answers to your posed questions is probably no.

      But could a penny-farthing meet the stresses of todays mountain or race bikes?

      This is still new technology, wait for the version three generations away and maybe some of the answers will be a resounding yes. Incidentally making these bullet/flame proof will be easier than the same accomplishment on humans

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    2. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Peter Hewson

      four legs are better - three legs are good. remember in star wars where they did the grappling hook thing around the legs & tripped them up? if i was the other side i'd be looking at working the legs. or the feet. if it can't walk on three legs then its toast if you score a good hit on one leg or one foot. it will have comms to scramble. and cargo to waste (the squad's food & water?). there'll be points to target. but especially the legs & feet. ultimately, a lot will depend on the terrain they're deployed in. -a.v.

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  6. Peter Hewson

    Citizen

    I opined to my daughter a few days ago that drones concern me. I just became more concerned.

    The first machine that could right itself by the simple use of the hoops wins the KISS award for today,

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  7. Steve Brown

    logged in via email @yahoo.com.au

    An ugly machine from an ugly country. Quite suiting.

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  8. Richard Koser

    Dude

    I'm sorry, but what's it for? The two argument in this article for these gadgets are 1) that they can "go where people and animals can". Gee, I hadn't noticed we were running out of people OR animals. 2) "Patrol our neighbourhoods." Seriously? Against what?
    And in case you hadn't noticed, even a slow race-horse could run down Usain Bolt - and pulp him into the dirt.
    If you really need a machine to accompany a squad to carry extra gear, what's wrong with a quad-bike?

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  9. Dave Star

    IT Network Support

    Well, Boston Dynamics have evolved Big Dog... It didn't take long. It is happening so fast. These machines are absolute incredible feats of robotic engineering agreed but serious chill factor happening... what the agenda here? If someone that lived 200 years ago saw something like LS3 they would probably die of a heart attack!

    Check out this guy he is even more interesting. link below
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bJeeocJuyY&feature=related

    And of course Honda's ASIMO Robot. link below
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8UeT9r4cmg&feature=related

    Cheers
    Dave S

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