It is probably a sad day for the robotics community. LS3, more popularly known as “BigDog” or even “AlphaDog”, is practically being shelved. The quadruped robot, built by Boston Dynamics (before it was bought by Google) for DARPA, will no longer be the US military’s dreamed pack mule in the field. Despite having all the flexibility, agility, strength, and even autonomy they’d want in a robot, BigDog apparently failed in one very critical criteria: it was just too noisy, making it dangerous to have around you in a hush hush operation.
More of an odd, sometimes frightening, contraption when it first appeared in 2008, BigDog gained superstar robot status when DARPA commissioned Boston Dynamics in 2012, with a $32 million contract, to build one that would be used by the US military. The initial goal was to use the robot to carry soldiers’ gear.
But more than simply being able to carry that much weight, 400 lbs according to the latest report, the robot became more interesting because its special abilities, like navigating rough terrain and interpreting visual and verbal commands. Both functionalities are critical in the field.
However, another critical functionality is keeping quiet. The robot is described to sound like a lawnmower, at least when stationary. When it starts moving, the clanking sounds that its legs make are a dead giveaway to soldiers’ positions. Plus, given it will be used in less than peaceful situations, it would even add maintenance and repair burdens on soldiers. It just wouldn’t do.
How about Spot, BigDog’s smaller and kickable little brother? While the military does find that the robot indeed solves the problem of noise, it fails the test when it comes to durability and autonomy. More importantly, it can only carry loads of 40 lbs, a tenth of BigDog’s capacity.
Sadly, for now, both LS3 and Spot are being retired, with no prospect of further upgrades or experiments. In short, they are, for all intents and purposes, dead. Only the lessons learned from their development, as well as the annals of history, will carry on their name and their memory.