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Combat walker machines: $3m for new studies

From motor mule to metal man to battlefield juggernaut?

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The US military's famous walker robot, aka "BigDog" or the "Legged Squad Support System", has received a further $3m in funding. However, the machine doesn't yet seem very close to seeing frontline military service.

The idea of BigDog/LS3 is that it would function like a sort of robotic packmule, accompanying a squad of foot soldiers and carrying heavy gear for them - backpacks, water, spare ammo or batteries, heavy weapons etc. Unlike an actual mule, it would be fast and able to go anywhere that the troops could - and running on diesel would avoid a regular mule's problem of eating up its own load with fodder requirements.

BigDog/LS3 is being developed by MIT spinout company Boston Dynamics on behalf of DARPA, the Pentagon agency which aims to make tomorrow's technology into yesterday's news today.

DARPA would like the LS3 of the future to carry 400lb plus 24 hours' fuel, and to have a quiet stealth mode as well - at the moment it's as noisy as a motorbike, unsuitable for many infantry operations. At the moment it only does 340lb, and so far it hasn't covered more than 12 miles at a stretch. However it does have an unusual, optional weapons accessory (see the vid.)

Last week's new contract award under LS3 saw DARPA pay Boston Dynamics $3,024,771 for unspecified "trade studies" to be delivered. These might relate to BigDog/LS3 as now envisaged, in the role of a wilderness load-carrier for dismounted troops. However Boston Dynamics has spoken previously of using the same walker technology in urban environments or indoors, and it has already developed a fairly advanced two-legged machine:

The PETMAN is actually intended for testing chemical-warfare clothes to be worn by regular fleshy troops, but it would seem to have some potential as a load-carrying assistant - or even weapons platform - able to accompany humans not only into the woods but into buildings, up stairs and ladders etc.

Trade studies normally come as precursors to real-world efforts like the existing BigDog, so it's at least possible this recent contract means a widening of roles and form factors. Just perhaps, in a Star Wars aficionado-pleasing move, DARPA are even mulling the use of mighty walking tanks. ®

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