Meet the Marines' Humdrum Toy: A Headless Miniature Pony Robot

More than a decade of research has gone into creating the Legged Squad Support System, which is equal parts endearing and terrifying.
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The future doesn't always arrive with a gasp and a boom like Skynet in Terminator. No, sometimes it's more like Office Space

At least that's the idea I get watching this video of the Marines' testing the Legged Squad Support System. DARPA built the LS3 to act as an autonomous pack horse that "can carry 400 lbs of a squad’s load, follow squad members through rugged terrain and interact with troops in a natural way, similar to a trained animal and its handler." 

Its headless form has always disturbed me in its ... headlessness. (Like, did Haruki Murakami design these things in a fever dream? Robots galloping across the plains.)

And yet, in the hands of real Marines, it sounds like they're testing a new network printer out, or maybe putting the office fob system through its paces. 

"The experimentation phase is in full swing right now," said Brigadier General Kevin Killea with all the emotion of a building manager introducing new trash chutes.

"And we'll come back and we'll look at all the data and we'll get the feedback from all the Marines about how they feel it can support them best."

One can imagine the questionnaire: 

* On a scale of 1 to 10, how much did you love being followed around the forest by a massive headless pack bot? 

* On a scale of 1 to 10, how many nightmares did you have about the sound of its legs? 

* How likely would you be to recommend the headless pack bot to a friend?

"It's a great idea. I'm glad they're coming out," said Corporal Mitchell Arnold Anderson (as if he was talking about the latest Android operating system).

"It just shows the Marine Corps is changing and times are changing. In 15 or 20 years, stuff like this should be everywhere in the military."

No biggie. 

Just what DARPA calls "the culmination of a decade of research in perception and autonomy with programs like DARPA’s Unmanned Ground Combat Vehicle-Perception for Off-Road Robotics Integration (UPI) program, mobility work with DARPA’s 'Big Dog' and significant advances in natural human-robot interface such as voice recognition."

The Marines and DARPA are working through a two-year refinement and testing period, which will come to an end in summer of 2014. 

Future people-who-don't-like-to-swear will exclaim, "Galloping robots!" (DARPA).

 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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