Robot Parking Garage/Illustration by Tom McKeith Robot Parking Garage Illustration by Tom McKeith

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency showed off prototypes Monday, Sept. 10, of new robots that climb rough terrain by mimicking the gait of pack mules. Testing on the prototypes, called the Legged Squad Support System (LS3) began earlier this year, and the robots could eventually carry gear for soldiers and other personnel.

“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 agency showed the prototypes jogging and running.“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.”

The pack mule robot isn't the only DARPA creation breaking new ground.

A robot developed by the DARPA broke two records the agency announced last week. The Cheetah robot, which is the fastest "legged" robot in history, broke its own record of 18 mph when it reached 28.3 mph running on a treadmill. The robot also broke the human speed record, beating sprinter Usain Bolt's peak speed record of 27.44 mph, which he set at the 2009 Berlin World Championships while setting the current 100 meter world record of 9.58 seconds.

Legged robots are used for rough terrain, where wheels or tracks are more likely to get stuck. The agency intends to test the Cheetah robot, which is being developed by Boston Dynamics, as part of DARPA's Maximum Mobility and Manipulation, to be contested next year on natural terrain. The speed increase over last year's results are the result of improved control algorithms and a more powerful pump, the agency reported.

“Modeling the robot after a cheetah is evocative and inspiring, but our goal is not to copy nature. What DARPA is doing with its robotics programs is attempting to understand and engineer into robots certain core capabilities that living organisms have refined over millennia of evolution: efficient locomotion, manipulation of objects and adaptability to environments,” DARPA Program Manager Gill Pratt said. “Cheetahs happen to be beautiful examples of how natural engineering has created speed and agility across rough terrain. Our Cheetah bot borrows ideas from nature’s design to inform stride patterns, flexing and unflexing of parts like the back, placement of limbs and stability. What we gain through Cheetah and related research efforts are technological building blocks that create possibilities for a whole range of robots suited to future Department of Defense missions.”