Semi-autonomous robot could offer support to foot soldiers

The US Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), a highly mobile, semi-autonomous legged robot designed for use by marines or soldiers.

According to a statement, the LS3 prototype recently underwent its first outdoor exercise, demonstrating the ability to follow a person using sensors that allow the robot to distinguish between trees, rocks, terrain obstacles and people.

Over the course of the next 18 months, DARPA plans to complete the development and refine key capabilities to ensure LS3 is able to support foot soldiers.

Features to be tested and validated are said to include the ability to carry 400lb (180kg) on a 20-mile trek in 24 hours without being refuelled and the refinement of LS3’s vision sensors to track a specific individual or object, observe obstacles in its path and autonomously make course corrections as needed.

Also planned is the addition of hearing technology, enabling squad members to speak commands to LS3 such as ‘stop’, ‘sit’ or ‘come here’. The robot also serves as a mobile auxiliary power source, enabling troops to recharge batteries for radios and handheld devices while on patrol.

DARPA seeks to demonstrate that an LS3 can carry a considerable load from dismounted squad members, follow them through rugged terrain and interact with them in a natural way — similar to the way a trained animal and its handler interact.

According to DARPA, reducing the load on foot soldiers has become a major point of emphasis for defence research and development because the increasing weight of equipment to be carried has a negative impact on battle readiness.

‘If successful, this could provide real value to a squad while addressing the military’s concern for unburdening troops,’ said US Army Lt Col Joe Hitt, DARPA programme manager. ‘LS3 seeks to have the responsiveness of a trained animal and the carrying capacity of a mule.’

The 18-month platform-refinement test cycle, with marine and army involvement, starts this summer. The tests will culminate in a planned capstone exercise where LS3 will embed with marines conducting field exercises.

LS3 is based on mobility technology advanced by DARPA’s Big Dog technology demonstrator as well as other DARPA robotics programmes that developed the perception technology for LS3’s vision system and hearing capability.