Feb 102010
 
Legged Squad Support System, conceptual art
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Boston Dynamics‘s Legged Squad Support System is the latest challenge for robotics pioneer Marc Raibert

Within the next three years, the U.S. military will test the feasibility of sending a quadruped robot out into the field as a trusty pack mule to carry supplies for its troops, wherever they go. If the testing goes well for Boston Dynamics‘s Legged Squad Support System (LS3), company founder Marc Raibert will have come a long way from the one-legged hopping robots he pioneered in the 1980s.

Actually Raibert has already come a long way, to the point where the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency‘s (DARPA) Tactical Technology Office and the U.S. Marine Corps awarded his company a 30-month, $32-million contract last week to deliver a prototype LS3. This would be the first step in fulfilling the military’s call for an autonomous, legged robot that can carry up to 181 kilograms of supplies for at least 32 kilometers without refueling.

The military already uses unmanned aerial vehicles for reconnaissance or to attack enemy targets, and DARPA has sponsored several contests in recent years to determine the feasibility of developing autonomic ground transportation. Automation has been much more difficult to introduce to the infantry, however, because of the need to traverse rough terrain where robots operating on wheels or tracks cannot go.

The LS3 is the latest in a series of legged robots developed by Raibert, who got his start in 1980, when he founded a robotics workshop at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh called the Leg Laboratory. Raibert moved the Leg Lab to Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1986 after becoming a professor of electrical engineering and computer science there. The lab, which he directed until 1995, did good work, he says, “but it always felt like we were kicking the can down the street, making scientific progress, but not worrying about a system that could operate out in the real world.”

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