US Army’s much-touted robot dogs might not arrive for a decade or more

T'Jae Ellis

WASHINGTON — They’ve walked the hallways at defense conferences, but a robot version of man’s best friend may not come to the Army anytime soon.

Two U.S.-based robotics companies, Boston Dynamics and Ghost Robotics, produce quadruped unmanned ground vehicles, or robot dogs. At last year’s Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference, Ghost Robotics unveiled an armed version of the “dog,” equipped with a 6.5mm Creedmoor assault rifle, as part of a partnership with Sword International.

The technology, which typically costs $50,000 to $150,000 depending on the company and model, requires further development before it can head to the battlefield, according to officials with the Army’s robotics program.

“These legged platforms have some promises which we’ve identified, primarily from a mobility standpoint,” Milot Resyli, the branch chief for dismounted robotic systems at the Army’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center, told C4ISRNET. “There are limitations to them as well from an endurance [perspective], as well as the payload capability and power of how much they can support.”

The development of a robot dog has been almost two decades in the making. In 2004, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched the BigDog project in hopes the robot could serve as a pack mule and accompany soldiers in terrain too rough for conventional vehicles.

Both the Air Force and the Department of Homeland Security have explored using the platforms for patrols. This summer, the Space Force conducted a demonstration at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, to illustrate how ground-based robots can automate manual and repetitive tasks, such as patrols.

The Army has not yet fielded one, according to the service’s chief roboticist, Robert Sadowski. However, he told C4ISRNET, the Army does have pilot programs underway as well as its “10x Project,” which tries out technology to upgrade future infantry forces.

Roboticists with the 10x Project have experimented with the platforms to assess how they might be used and pushed to do more missions than the current level of technology allows, Resyli said.

But he also said the technology has room to grow in its ability to operate in all weather conditions and in shallow water.

Unlike costly, larger robotics platforms, the Army doesn’t anticipate keeping its smaller robots around for more than a decade. Instead, current programs of record for small systems will undergo a technology refresh at the 10-year mark.

According to Resyli, the next opportunity for legged platforms to compete for those programs is at the refresh point, which falls within the next five to 10 years. He added, however, that there are talks right now about the next iteration of these small platforms.

Unlike wheeled or tracked robots, which can fall over on rough terrain, legged robots can climb stairs and operate over rough surfaces. The quadruped platforms can also carry payloads, such as cameras and sensors, allowing them to act as early warning systems and put distance between the warfighter and threats.

“There are many other missions out there, specifically the subterranean missions where current track-and-wheel platforms are severely limited because you have potentially slight, extensive elevation changes — whether it’s stairs or steep slopes — that the current platform can’t support,” Resyli said.

Sadowski suggested the platforms could take the place of surveillance missions that would otherwise use a quadcopter, a type of flying drone that uses four rotors or propellers to fly.

Although quadcopters are used for a wide range of military and tactical surveillance missions, the technology struggles to support longer missions and heavier payloads due to the heavy weight of sensors and a limited power capacity — areas where quadruped platforms boast better capacities, Sadowski said.