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Robotic 'Pack Mule' with Impressive Reflexes 268

Posted by Zonk
from the robo-horse dept.
moon_monkey writes "New Scientist has a story about a nimble, four-legged robot that can recover its balance even after being given a hefty kick." From the article: "The project is sponsored by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), who want the robotic pack mule to assist soldiers in terrain too tough for vehicles. Ground-based soldiers often need to carry 40 kilograms of equipment. Raibert says the latest version of BigDog can handle slopes of 35 - a steeper gradient than one in two. The hydraulics are driven by a two-stroke single-cylinder petrol engine, and it can carry over 40 kg, about 30% of its bodyweight. The robot can follow a simple path on its own, or can be remotely controlled."
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Robotic 'Pack Mule' with Impressive Reflexes

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  • by jimmyhat3939 (931746) on Friday March 03, 2006 @11:24PM (#14848299) Homepage
    Why is this better than just a mule? Let's see... Mules eat plants and grasses found naturally in the area. The electronic mule requires electricity. Great if you're in a city in the USA. Bad if you're in terrain thats "too tough for vehicles".
    • by jasonditz (597385) on Friday March 03, 2006 @11:26PM (#14848308) Homepage
      Well for one... nobody can get a multimillion dollar contract to develop a live mule.

    • by MustardMan (52102) on Friday March 03, 2006 @11:32PM (#14848341)
      Let's see... mules are animals. How could a machine possibly be better than an animal?

      A machine won't get spooked by gunfire
      a machine won't start making mating calls that alert the enemy to your position
      a machine won't take massive shits that a tracking dog could smell
      a machine doesn't die if it gets thirsty - you can go get more fuel and come back to it a week later or a month later.

      I can see a whole lot of applications where a live animal wouldn't be as useful. Perhaps we should get rid of all the motorcycle police and make them use horses, too?
      • Perhaps we should get rid of all the horse police instead, make them use motorcycles... Or we could continue to use the best transportation for the task at hand.

        First: Yes, an untrained mule may be spooked be gunfire. On the other hand people have been training horses to go into battle for thousands years. Worst case scenario your packmule runs from behind cover and gets shot (assuming the enemy would bother shooting at fleeing livestock in the middle of a fight).

        Second: Mating calls from a mule? Mules are
        • Mating calls from a mule? Mules are sterile, do they even make mating calls? Better question: Do they make mating calls LOUDER THAN A 2-STROKE ENGINE?!?

          My dog had his testicles removed before he reached sexual maturity. He still tries to fuck everything in sight (female dogs, male dogs, my cats, my leg, my shoe....)

          The difference is - the mule can be switched off at will. If you get within a few miles of an enemy camp you're about to attack, you shut off the machine and hide it, take the gear you'll need
      • A few of the brothers in the Pack Animals Union chapter 107 would like a word with you, Mister "I-can-see-a-whole-lot-of-applications-where-a-liv e-animal-wouldn't-be-as-useful."
      • "I can see a whole lot of applications where a live animal wouldn't be as useful. Perhaps we should get rid of all the motorcycle police and make them use horses, too?"

        Funny that you talk about that. I've seem lots of initiatives lately that propose exactly that. Horses are much more flexible than motorcycles, what leads to better police action. Of course, horses produce some dirt, that most people don't like to have on their cities, but I guess that they aren't so bottoered by that on a war.

    • by Anonymous Coward
      Mules, horses, camels, and others that I can't think of have been used since before recorded time. And they have always been a logistical nightmare, which is why they were replaced as soon as motorized vehicles became reliable enough.

      A mule eats and drinks every day. It can carry its own food and water, but that means it carries a lot less of what you needed it to carry. Or you spend a significant portion of your day foraging, which means you aren't accomplishing your mission.

      Gasoline has a very good ene
    • Probably because you cant mount sensors and guns on a live mule and control its every action from the safety and comfort of Ft. Livingroom, plus living things are normally scared of huge explosions and imminent death. Also, live mules look pretty bad all shot the fuck up, but nobody gives 2 shits about some twisted metal.
    • And... (Score:2, Funny)

      by Eric Damron (553630)
      "Mules eat plants and grasses found naturally in the area."

      And our solders can eat the mule. I'll bet the robotic one doesn't taste good even with barbecue sauce.
    • The electronic mule requires electricity.

      "The hydraulics are driven by a two-stroke single-cylinder petrol engine..."

      It runs on gas - presumably the engine drives a generator for the electronics. The military is already going to be delivering gas in theater anyway, so what's the down side?

    • Mules require feeding, housing, care and medical attention even when they are not being used. The people who provide this care require feeding, housing, care, medical attention and money even when the mule is not being used. Given our petrol based way of doing everything (like growing oats) all of this actually means that a mule burns more petrol over its useful life than a machine does, because it's burning it 24/7.

      Mules are also notoriously, well, mulish.

      The car did not replace the horse because it was mo
  • Hefty Kick? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Transcendent (204992)
    ...a nimble, four-legged robot that can recover its balance even after being given a hefty kick... The hydraulics are driven by a two-stroke single-cylinder petrol engine, and it can carry over 40 kg, about 30% of its bodyweight.

    Who's the brute who kicked that robot?
    • by phoenix.bam! (642635) on Friday March 03, 2006 @11:48PM (#14848413)
      I'd love to be the guy whose job it is to kick the multimillion dollar piece of equipment to see if i can knock it over.
    • Looking Real (Score:4, Insightful)

      by hhawk (26580) on Saturday March 04, 2006 @12:20AM (#14848542) Homepage Journal
      The most interesting thing is the "natural" looking motion of the "legs". At first I thought it was two guys up in some custom faking it as a robot! They are so natural!

      The video delivers what is promised but notice that when it does go up that steep hill there is no 40+ kg of weight on it...

      It also seems a bit to loud and well, in need of some body armor.
    • You kicked my robotic mule! Now it need operation!

      I didn't kick your robotic mule or whatever. I don't even know you.

      Are you going to pay for the operation?

      No!

      I'm going to kill you.

      What?

      Just Kidding!


      [If you get this joke, you REALLY need to get out more.]
  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Friday March 03, 2006 @11:30PM (#14848330) Homepage Journal
    Nice robodonkey.

    WHERE'S OSAMA?
    • Godd question. It's interesting that the best special forces in the world could so nearly miss the world's most wanted man so many times. My friends and I believe he will be caught near some crucial election =D
    • Needle (Score:2, Informative)

      by HolyYakker (958822)
      Lets compare the benefits and costs of these endevours.

      Keeping in mind this project was probably long under development before 9/11 even happened; I give you a choice of two tasks:

      1. Find one single person in the entire world who has an extensive network of people determined to keep him from showing up on the radar.
      2. Build a robot that is able to carry a large amount of cargo over rough terrain and is rather self sufficient.

      Benefits from Task 1:
      1. Head of an organization brought down. However, since it
      • I actually recall a news article (with a picture) talking about how Special Forces in Afghanistan were using pack mules to schlep around their gear, since they couldn't get jeeps up into the mountains.

        http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/issues/2002 /Feb/Special_Ops_Equipment.htm [nationalde...gazine.org]

        That article is from 2002 (first page of google), but I know the article I saw was from 2005.
      • Getting Osama offers other benefits:

        - Discourage followers by exposing his myth to reality
        - Discourage new leaders by punishing him
        - Discourage other threats by showing attacking the US has consequences
        - Extracting info from Osama to help destroy the rest of his network

        The robodonkey can wait.

        Maybe it's because I live in NYC, where I'm from, and get to look at where the WTC used to be most days, that I actually care about getting the guy who did it. Maybe you think letting him go to work on a science projec
        • Dude, as I commented above, we're not pulling soldiers out of the war for this. DARPA money goes to universities and companies who do the research. Enlisted folks are all off in Iraq.

          They were flirting with the draft to get enough troops to chase down Iraq and their efforts in Afghanistan. The cut and dried truth is that there are plenty of other things that could be cut that would do a lot less damage the our country than DARPA funding (and the hard research funding took a deep slash this past year, in
        • - Discourage followers by exposing his myth to reality
          - Discourage new leaders by punishing him
          - Discourage other threats by showing attacking the US has consequences
          - Extracting info from Osama to help destroy the rest of his network

          Geez... those sound a lot like the (various) reasons given for why the US invaded Iraq.

          How do you feel about the diversion of resources from Afghanistan/Osama to Iraq?

          Good, bad, or crucial to the global war on terror?

      • Benefits from Task 1:

        1. Head of an organization brought down. However, since it is a cell based organization and much information indicates his role is no longer chief commander it will do little to help stop terrorism.

        2. Umm... yeah, nevermind that's it.

        Interesting, so do you think bringing Saddam Hussein to justice was "worth it"?
    • So... what you're saying is that you just want research to dry up and die out while we hunt Bin Laden?

      Seriously, they're not taking troops out of the war for this. DARPA funding is going to universities and private companies to fund stuff like this.

      They were flirting with the draft over the Iraq war... I guess that what you're saying is that you want to be drafted to go and find Osama?

      Perhaps there are better things to cut than research.
    • He could be....in Iran. *gasp*

      But after that false intel on the WMDs in Iraq, I'm willing to bet Osama is "hands off" if he is indeed located there. Remember, he's highly mobile. Even if he was in Iran, by the time everyone in Washington is done bickering, he would have moved on to another country.

      Put it to you this way. We are NEVER going to get him. Never never never never...ever! No going to happen.
  • Video of the robot (Score:5, Informative)

    by HoneyBunchesOfGoats (619017) on Friday March 03, 2006 @11:31PM (#14848337)
    http://www.bostondynamics.com.nyud.net:8090/dist/B igDog_Feb-26-2006.wmv [nyud.net] Put through the Coral CDN, just in case.

    The robot looks fairly hilarious when it walks, since it moves a lot like two biped robots (imitating the motion of human legs) facing each other. The whining mechanical noise is also pretty funny, since it sounds like a mechanical goat. However, it does withstand the kick pretty impressively.
    • That is definitely a weird looking walk. It's fairly easy to imagine that it's just a couple of tiny people with very skinny legs and tight pants, like some bizarro two-person horse costume.

      After watching the video, though, I have some questions:

      1. Can it jump? If so, how far?
      2. Can it right itself if it does fall over?
      3. Can it stand still without constant leg motion? (I know, some people can't do that, so it might be a lot to ask.)
      4. How long before someone straps a latex phallus to it and makes pr
      • 1. Probably; probably not too far

        2. Only if it can get one set of legs to rotate under its body while the others stick out; because it's clearly too top-heavy to do any sort of a momentum-based roll

        3. Sure it could stand without constant motion. It's a quadruped. Bipeds can fall over when stopped, if they don't use active balance, but quadrupeds should not.

        4. I think the twee cowboy boots on the last dude who kicks it pretty much answer this question. Although, who could relax with all that noise? I
      • It actually looks like a new born goat walking.
    • by marciot (598356)
      Ohh, the video is cool.

      Does it make sense to post a torrent on a relatively small file (27MBs)? I guess we will find out. I'm seeding the download for now. Good luck.

      http://marciot.freeshell.org/BigDog_Feb-26-2006.wm v.torrent [freeshell.org]

      I wonder if having tons of slashdotters download a 3KB torrent will slashdot my free web provider.... should I provide a torrent of my torrent? Or a corel cache of my torrent of the torrent?

      • Does it make sense to post a torrent on a relatively small file (27MBs)? I guess we will find out. I'm seeding the download for now. Good luck.

        I see many torrents on 3-15Mb files, so yeah, probably.

  • by mrpeebles (853978) on Friday March 03, 2006 @11:38PM (#14848367)
    I just don't know why anyone would ever call it a "pack mule" when its real name, "BigDog", is so much cooler.

    Also, did anyone watch the movie of BigDog? It looks really creepy, actually. I guess I was subconsciously expecting to see, oh I don't know, a big robotic dog, maybe Bell from "Bell and Sebastion" with metal instead of fur. Intead BigDog looks more like something you would frantically blow away in Starship Troopers before it rips your head off with its long insect-like legs. If I had one, I think I'd want to attach something to it that looks like a little like a head, at least. When they kick it, and it moves its legs to keep from falling over, I squirm. It's like it's ALMOST alive, but not quite.
  • M.U.L.E. (Score:3, Funny)

    by MilenCent (219397) <johnwh@@@gmail...com> on Friday March 03, 2006 @11:42PM (#14848384) Homepage
    Don't bother having it mine for crystite in the river valley, remember to have it make enough energy to power itself and the rest of your empire, and make sure to take care when installing it so it doesn't run off....
  • by msbsod (574856)
    Too bad that wonderful tools like this one have to be produced for the military. Wouldn't it be great if such a mule could assist use when we have to move? Moving all those boxes is just back-breaking work. Oh well, I guess I have to ask my friends again.
    Nevertheless, great stuff, well done!
  • I understand this thing is going to be travelling alongside our soldiers in dangerous situations, and they don't want it's noise to alert the enemy... but does it really have to blast that annoying Arabic music the whole time?!
  • Cost comparison? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jcr (53032) <jcr.mac@com> on Saturday March 04, 2006 @12:17AM (#14848530) Journal
    I'd just like to know how this gadget compares in price to a real pack mule. If our soldiers need mules, why not, oh.... USE SOME REAL MULES?

    -jcr
    • by _Sharp'r_ (649297) <sharper@@@booksunderreview...com> on Saturday March 04, 2006 @01:32AM (#14848734) Homepage Journal
      The advantages are pretty easy to see.

      Pack mules need to be fed even if you are just storing them in a camp. This thing can be packed tight in a box until you need it, then you just feed it the same gas that you feed your other vehicles. You're already shipping gas, but you aren't shipping much mule food to the camp. Sure, one the move a mule can eat some grass, but that becomes harder in the middle of the desert or while being shipped across the ocean.

      Also, it's much harder to resupply a group under dangerous conditions with mules being led than it is with something you can remote control a group of across that same dangerous territory. As far as weight ratios, some of them can carry gas for the others, while those others carry what you want delivered. It's the same system trucks use.

      Plus, I imagine (based on previous darpa results) these will end up quite a bit faster than mules are.

      Picture remote controlled, locally autonomous truck convoys dropping these things off for the "last mile" delivery to the troops in the hills and you'll see where all this is going.

      Of course, eventually they'll also use them for surveilance placements and then remote controlled combat.
      • then you just feed it the same gas that you feed your other vehicles

        Oh, so wrong, so bloody wrong. Run straight unleaded gas in your typical 2-cycle motored piece of landscape equipment (blower, chain saw, brush cutter, etc)... One of the suxors about 2-cycle motors is having to have "mix". OK, it's not as big a suxor as having to carry AvGas, but still... Can't run them on Diesel (although there have been 2-cycle diesel marine engines, you'd just have to design it to have a long enough lifetime being lubed
  • by RossumsChild (941873) on Saturday March 04, 2006 @12:36AM (#14848583)
    Impressive sense of balance (the second kick in the video where it uses an almost simian method to get it's feet back under it is amazing). That's quite a step forward for robotics, though it's not particularly practical as a pack-mule alternative *yet*.

    However, that thing desperately needs a muffler--is anybody else having flashbacks to "Dumb and Dumber"?

    "Hey, you guys want to hear the most annoying sound in the world?"
  • Why do I say that? Because history teaches us that machines cannot neccessarily deliver victory during a war. In Iraq, IEDs are giving us havoc. The 1967 Israel war with the Arabs was won by Israel because they (the Israelis) destroyed almost all enemy tanks and APCs rendering the troops immobile! This robot would not survive an IED or landmine at all.

    I am afraid it might be an example of the so called white elephant. Sadly, we in America have many of these.

    • This robot would not survive an IED or landmine at all.

      It's a robotic beast of burden, not some sort of battlemech, and it's not intended to withstand IEDs or landmines. It's intended to carry stuff over rough terrain with a platoon of dismounted infantrymen, who, if they find themselves in the middle of a minefield, will have bigger problems than worrying about the robot mule.

  • Let's see here... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Cerebus (10185) on Saturday March 04, 2006 @01:11AM (#14848682) Homepage
    A 1,200 lb mule can carry up to 240 lbs of pack, eats grasses found nearly everywhere, will be reasonably quiet when well-treated, is smart enough not to walk off a cliff when the mule skinner isn't paying the best of attention, and will cost you under US$2000 per head. In addition, we know mules can be combat-trained, as mule trains were used to pull artillery on battlefields, and when worse comes to worst, you can eat it.

    This thing can carry a bit more, eats gasoline, makes as much noise as a gas turbine, will happily stroll into harm's way, and will likely cost on the order of a luxury car per unit. While there will be no training needed, when it breaks down it's just so much spare parts.

    Part of the reason for wanting something that can go anywhere is that the trucks you currently have *can't*. So how are you going to refuel the mechanical mule? Can this thing pack enough spare fuel *and* have enough capacity left to be useful?

    I think I'll stick with the mule.
    • A 1,200 lb mule can carry up to 240 lbs of pack...

      That's only 20% of its body weight, so by that measure, you get more bang for the buck - well, kilogram, anyway ;) - with the robot, which can carry 30%. If the numbers in the article are close to correct, five of these things will weigh approximately the same as one mule, and be able to carry well over 400 pounds of equipment.

      So how are you going to refuel the mechanical mule?

      Same way you're resupplying ammo and food to the men it's with.

      • Yes, but how much gas does the thing have to tote? Mules don't have to tote their own food usually (in Afghanistan/Iraq/Iran they probably would have to, though, and water too). How do they get so much power from a .080 model airplane engine, though?

        • I assume it's a bit beefier than a model airplane engine. ;)

          Anyway, you can get a gas powered scooter with a 50cc two stroke single cylinder engine - those are good for 60-70 miles on a gallon of gas. Figure a gallon of gas is about 6 pounds (2.7 kilos), so six kilos gets you a gallon in the tank and a gallon to spare. Who knows what kind of mileage this thing gets, but it might be okay.

    • So we shouldn't do any robotics research, because current alternatives are almost all better in some way? Or do you expect things like this to spring fully-formed from the minds of their inventors, rendering all that came before them redundant overnight?

      I don't think this has much of a market either, but I do see it as a necessary precursor to something that will have in a few years or decades.
    • Your response was easily predicted. Think into the future man. This is an alpha version of the first of it's kind. Imagine what these things might do in the future. It might be able to walk to a 90 degree rock face and then scale it, with the soldier sitting on a little fold-out platform. It might run at 70 MPH into a fox hole and take out a bunch of soldiers with little turrets. The possibilities are endless. The "mule" platform is not very extensible, but this robot is, and will be improved upon wi
    • Living creatures have an annoying flaw in that you can't switch them off and set them aside when you're not using them. Liquid fuel is already in the POL supply chain and is a highly concentrated energy source, while oats and alfalfa are neither. Needing to camp near grazing and water makes your movement that much more predictable. Machines can be switched on and used as soon as they're manufactured and require no training. A damaged machine can be repaired in the field by replacing parts and you can even t
  • AniMules (Score:2, Funny)

    by 4Dmonkey (936872)
    They created us to carry their burden, and it was good .....

    Then they kicked us, and it started...

  • Marc Raibert did some great work on legged running machines back in the 1980s, at CMU and later at MIT. Then he left MIT to form a startup, Boston Dynamics. But Boston Dynamics didn't do much dynamics; they ended up doing kinematic animations for the military, like most games have now.

    I'm glad to hear that he's back.

  • I just read an article about a robotic Stryker vehicle the Army is testing [suvalleynews.com]. "You don't take right turns at 50 miles per hour, especially with a 20-ton robot." I wonder how it would fare in the DARPA Challenge?

    I also read another article about a vehicle the Pentagon is testing, but I forget what it was about.

  • Beer mule (Score:4, Insightful)

    by jimmydevice (699057) on Saturday March 04, 2006 @03:52AM (#14849009)
    Finally, something that can carry a full keg, across abusive terrain and not fall down in a druken stupor. I see a great future renting these for senior class keggers. Maybe integrate the walker into the keg, So if the cops show up, and a little AI ( lots of shouting and the words "freeze assholes" ) it can run and hide in the forest with all the other kiddies.

    Jim.
  • Slashdot has changed (Score:5, Interesting)

    by NitsujTPU (19263) on Saturday March 04, 2006 @04:11AM (#14849055)
    This article rules. It shows that the Slashdot readership has grown quite diverse... as in diversely not nerds :-P

    Since when do Slashdot readers feel the need to criticize large government agencies who fund R&D for building robots?

    Jeez people. This thing is cool.
  • I just watched the video [bostondynamics.com] of this robotic "pack mule". Given that the "knees" of the front legs face the knees of the back legs, I wonder if anyone else was reminded of Doctor Dolittle [wikipedia.org]'s PushMi-PullYu [wikipedia.org]?

  • ...you set the robot mule's switch to co-operative. The last guy left it on cantankerous and boy was he sorry.
  • They need to equip it with a spinning wheel.
  • The recovery when kicked closely resembles a colt, but the grisly dancing around on level ground is reeeaaly creepy and looks like two people holding a stretcher between them. I was thinking it would do better with arms (how many? do they do the wave?) milling around but then horses do okay without arms don't they. It seems the tilting of the main body and jumping in the air has a similar effect. (Though skiers and snowboarders can do better by lowering their mass close to the ground, hands close to the s
  • GE: prior art (Score:2, Informative)

    by mhermans (948710)
    Isn't really a novel idea, it reminds me of this [davidszondy.com] prototype, developed by General Electric for the US Army in the sixties (see also [davidpride.com]).
  • On the Boston Dynamics website, they show a picture of "BigDog" wnich has both pairs of legs facing the same direction. I wonder if there is some mechanical advantage to having the opposing motion like that. And they make a little one (called "LittleDog") which looks quite cute.

    This is cool, although I admit the film did look like Muppet pr0n (Naked Muppets dancing for your pleasure).

  • by jaysones (138378) on Saturday March 04, 2006 @01:00PM (#14850461)
    It's not only useful, it's WHISPER-QUIET!!!
  • I didn't see any terrain in the video that wasn't negotiable by even a fairly mundane subcompact economy car, let alone a Hummvee or ATV.
  • Looks cool, but why drive it with a 2 stroke engine? From my experience, getting a 2 stroke to run longer than about 2 hours at idle or an hour under load is a miracle. Why not use a similarly sized 4 stoke that would run forever?
    • Low parts count (Score:3, Insightful)

      by cheros (223479)
      Think of field servicability. A humble 2 stroke is about the simplest engine you can put in the field (apart froma diesel, but that's a different ballgame altogether). A 2 stroke has few parts (which also means less bits that can go wrong) and carrying spares is thus easy. I'm not sure if the power output to weight ratio is better as well, if I remember well from my motorcycle days that is pretty much a given too but that's not quite as scientific as I'd like ;-).

      Having said that, it's only a theory. Ma
  • If they had a horse like that in that infamous movie, some people might actually have gone to see it...
  • Balance (Score:3, Informative)

    by StikyPad (445176) on Sunday March 05, 2006 @07:37PM (#14855246) Homepage
    I saw the video at video.google.com the other day, and it's impressive, but clearly needs some work. The balance mechanism only seems to work by lifting its leg and placing it farther away, which results in significant sideways travel when attempting to go straight in slippery terrain. Sort of like when you trip or slip and you have to throw a leg out in front of you to keep from falling. Actually exactly like that.. Imagine if you had to do that every time your balance shifted even slightly. While its ability to accurately place its legs to counter a fall is impressive, it's not the most elegant solution. The ability to lean and shift its center of gravity would help immensely. Once this thing can rear up on two legs and kick people, I'll be duely impressed.

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