DARPA unveils robotic mule


Today, the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) released an exciting and unusual video of its latest robotic creation: a mule-like device that gracefully and quietly walks over rugged terrain.

Officially named the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), the walking “pack mule” prototype was designed to show that “a legged robot can unburden dismounted squad members by carrying their gear, autonomously following them through rugged terrain, and interpreting verbal and visual commands,” according to the DARPA website.

“We’ve refined the LS3 platform and have begun field-testing against requirements of the Marine Corps,” said Army Lt. Col. Joe Hitt, DARPA program manager. “The vision for LS3 is to combine the capabilities of a pack mule with the intelligence of a trained animal.”

The LS3 is able to rapidly change speeds based on squad commands. It can maintain a walking speed of 1 to 3 mph over rough terrain, transition to a 5-mph “jog” and run up to 7 mph over flatter, less demanding surfaces.

Still, as impressive as the new prototype is, viewers might also find it a bit unsettling. After all, what you’re viewing is essentially a headless mule trotting through the forest of its own volition. And the LS3 even has the ability to pick itself up should it fall down.

“The LS3 has demonstrated it is very stable on its legs, but if it should tip over for some reason, it can automatically right itself, stand up and carry on,” Hitt said. “LS3 also has the ability to follow a human leader and track members of a squad in forested terrain and high brush.”

Earlier this year, DARPA unveiled an earlier version of the LS3 prototype. But this newer version is supposed to be both more perceptive to its environment and quieter, reducing the risk of detection from hostile forces.

“LS3 is now roughly 10 times quieter than when the platform first came online, so squad members can carry on a conversation right next to it, which was difficult before,” Hitt said.