Robodogs: The Infantry’s Best Friend of Tomorrow?

It looks like a still from a Neill Blomkamp film - but it's reality. A Legged Squad Support System (LS3) operates on exercises with a United States Marine Corps Unit. The LS3, also known as "AlphaDog", is an evolution of Boston Dynamics BigDog quadruped robot.

The Infantry’s load is at an all-time high, resulting in a high rate of injuries and medical non-deployables. Planners are desperately searching for new ways to lift the burden on soldiers and Marines, before the problem spirals out of control. The obvious and most immediate path is to lighten the troops’ load, but the holy grail of infantry technology would be something that allowed the Infantry to haul even more with less burden. Enter the “robodog”: a legged, robotic pack mule first developed as a demonstrator by Boston Dynamics.

Robodogs promise all the best characteristics of a mule and an ATV combined. Like a mule, future robodogs could be truly all-terrain vehicles, not subject to the limitations of wheels, nor do they need a driver. Like an ATV, robodogs do not need water or food – only fuel – and they do not get scared, or flighty, nor can they be stubborn or refuse orders. Versus the infantryman himself, robodogs cannot get injured, they can be readily repaired or replaced with an identical unit; they can carry much more, and potentially do it much faster as well. Most critically, however, they do not risk human life, being unmanned. This could potentially allow smaller units to operate much more like larger ones, with a corresponding reduction of risk to human life and limb. Supported by robodogs, infantry could carry much heavier and more effective weapons, heavier armor, and still retain all the other necessities close at hand.

Robodog prototypes have already demonstrated considerable agility and all-terrain capability, as shown in the 2010 video below from Boston Dynamics:

For now, the primary obstacle facing robotic squad assets lies with their powerplants: Internal combustion engines are loud (robodog prototypes are about as loud as a weed whacker), and require maintenance and fuel to keep running. Current robodog prototypes are also still not autonomous enough to not need a dedicated handler. These problems, as well as questions about how exactly the robodogs would be integrated into the squad’s structure, led to the suspension of the Legged Squad Support System in 2015. However, in the future these issues might be solved: Already companies like Tesla are pushing the limits of what silent battery power can accomplish, although even today it has not reached a level of energy density sufficient for applications like robot dogs. Still, we should remember our history: Once upon a time, the helicopter – limited by its gasoline piston powerplants was barely suitable for observation and medevac. Today, powerful turbine-engined helicopters are the backbone of Army operations. Could the same be true for robotic mules, someday?

At this time, legged robots remain unsuitable for infantry use, but they offer a tantalizing window into the support systems of the future. Watching videos of the AlphaDog in action, it’s easy to imagine that – at some unknown future date – the Infantry will be supported by robotic pack mules carrying the bulk of their load, and enabling the squad to pack on even more firepower and armor for the fight. Will the challenges facing robot dog designers be surmounted, or will something even better come along? For now, we can only speculate.



Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He is also the author of the original web serial Heartblood, which is being updated and edited regularly. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


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  • TheNotoriousIUD

    They tried robo-cats but when turned loose they just ran off and hid under the car and refused to carry anything.

    • Johnsmyname

      Did you ever here about the CIA spy cat? In the late 60’s they spent many months and millions of dollars on a cyborg spy cat. After literally seconds into it’s first mission it was run over by a car and they scrapped the whole project.

      • Ryfyle

        That’s incredibly sad. Not even a chance to serve his country.

      • LCON

        Didn’t the Iranians claim the US was deploying Spy Squirrels and they caught some of them?… Wait a minute Does that mean Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers were Actually a CIA front?

    • datimes
      • TheNotoriousIUD

        Cats only fight for themselves
        Mercenaries

        • gunsandrockets

          nah

          cats aren’t mercenaries

          mercenaries by definition fight for others

          dogs are mercenaries

          cats are pirates

      • gunsandrockets

        did someone say Meow?

        • KidCorporate

          Cyriak FTW

  • Kinetics

    Why won’t this thing just die?

    As a side note, “Robodogs promise all the best characteristics of a mule and an ATV combined”. I had better see someone riding this thing around like a small horse, then the development money spent on this project will be fully worth it.

    • Risky

      I can guarantee if you field this with some infantry Marines, not only will they be riding them, they will have figured out how to joust with them by the end of the day.

      • BeGe1

        I’m already drawing up jousting rules using MCMAP equipment and company guidons.

        • int19h

          Oh man, and I have just the perfect piece of equipment for this. Behold, a jousting bayonet:

          https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0c0ce2ed563d908757d054333d9b389f463dab4e08aa8a2342d203899458592f.jpg

          • iksnilol

            Doesn’t that sound a smidge dangerous, y’all?

          • Major Tom

            Marines? Be safe? XD

          • iksnilol

            Now I ain’t no Safety Susan, but it does sound a bit dangerous to charge at each other with machinegun spears whilst riding diesel powered robot hellspawn.

            That’s just my two cents, pardner.

          • Joshua

            that is an awesome description, I think we just found the next marine recruitment tag line

  • Johnsmyname

    Is it just me or do you all find this thing incredibly creepy and unsettling? If I was on an armed patrol and found one of these things coming at me I’d definitely shoot.

    • gunsandrockets

      Advance to the 0:50 mark to see “spot” in his one-armed glory

      Why that isn’t creepy at all!

      ;-D

      • Imagine coming home one day to find the front door busted and that thing running around your house.

        • Risky

          If it’s doing my dishes I probably wouldn’t mind a bit.

        • Johnsmyname

          Just when you though a Benelli loaded with buckshot was overkill for home defense.

        • TheNotoriousIUD

          Prepare flame units…

        • Independent George

          Better yet: imagine breaking into a house, and finding that thing staring you down. Red LED eyes or the sweeping Cylon eyes are an optional extra.

      • Johnsmyname

        Dude, I’m literally in my office trying to stop from lol’ing. This should have a NSFW warning.

    • Risky

      If you want creepy go google up Boston Dynamics 2-stroke, gas-powered galloping-cat-robot-thing. The sound of that thing coming at you would be terrifying!

      • gunsandrockets

        hee hee!

        • iksnilol

          For y’all without internet… just imagine the sound of throwing scrap metal into a woodchipper, only sped up.

      • iksnilol

        Jesus tap dancing christ! I thought the nagging of my sister-in-law was scary, but that sound of that BD robot is something else.

    • It’s not just you.

    • gunsandrockets

      have you seen the new spider-bot?

      Just kidding!

      • Dougscamo

        What! They improved the models from “Runaway”??!!

    • Edeco

      Nope, nightmarish, I’d be weeping while shooting it and for hours after.

      • iksnilol

        Don’t weep, it’ll obscure your aim.

        • Edeco

          I’m sure it wouldn’t help, but I retain at least 80% tacticality with steamed up glasses, should be enough to neutralize the dog-bot.

          • iksnilol

            “Yes, Mama. But he was my robot hellspawn-dog. I’ll do it.”

            “WRRRRRRRRRRRRZZGHZZZZZZHHHHH” went the robot hellspawn.

          • Dougscamo

            Old Yeller I presume? Now I’m really creeped out! A robot with rabies (computer virus)…..

          • iksnilol

            Oh yes, Old Yeller… FROM HELL! [50’s horror movie noises intensify]

    • Independent George

      The Sirius Cybernetics Corporation describe robots as “Your plastic pal who’s fun to be with”. The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy describes the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation as “A bunch of mindless jerks who will be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.”

    • int19h

      I can’t help but wonder the effect these things would have in the field against, say, Taliban. Especially with some firepower in addition to the, er, psychological effect.

      Seriously, though, if these things are mobile enough to climb stairs and get up from slipping on a banana peel, why can’t they do MOUT? The manipulator looks like it can open doors, for example (or rip them out, I suppose). If it can walk on uneven surfaces, it can also walk on rubble – in fact, with four legs, it should be more stable than a man, if anything. And, of course, it could be armored like tank, and carry something really substantial as a primary weapon (say, .50 cal? and then maybe a couple of rockets), with plenty of ammo to spare.

      Sure, it can only run so far on fuel, and you need the handler/operator close by. But still, if “close by” is within, say, half a mile, that’s already a game changer.

      • iksnilol

        50 cal is still heavy. Even if you used a lightweight MG (like the NSV) and packed “light” (IE only 150 rounds) it would still have to contend with carrying about 60 kg (and move swiftly with all that).

        A lighter MG like a 308 one would be easier and you could load up like 400 rounds for the same weight or something. Just chop through houses with stable full auto fire.

      • Cap’n Mike

        And then all the robodogs will be on profile with bad backs and bad knees, and ETSing with a 100% disability ratings.😀

  • Ed

    Robots have all the hype. Till a EMP fries them all and render them useless.

    • Noishkel

      Most military hardware already has a level of EMP resistance worked into it. But yeah, it is a possible. But at the same time that same level of EMP would probably try everything with wire in it. Including powered optics.

      • noob

        what happens to people when you pump a few megawatts of emp through a person’s brain?

        • Major Tom

          A tingly sensation but otherwise nothing.

  • feetpiece _

    Lighten the load to just a 117G, sidearm and a laser pointer to direct fire from AWT/SWT….

  • ORCON

    Have these guys never played the Metal Gear series? PMCs have been using these for quite some time! 😀

    • TJbrena

      TIME TO LEAVE THEM ALL BEHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIND

  • This will never catch on. We all know that the future of the heavily laden infantryman lies with the long range, manually-steered, load bearing Tactical Trolley.

  • Until then, it’s hiking trolleys ftw.

  • Sledgecrowbar

    It better radio back a bark to respond to auditory commands.

  • Independent George

    Dumb question, but I have to ask anyway: is it feasible to use an actual pack mule in someplace like Afghanistan?

    • gunsandrockets

      • Independent George

        Animal, 4-legged, Herbivore, M1: user interface not intuitive or reliable under field conditions. Further development needed.

        • gunsandrockets

          Good question: I don’t know the answer. Maybe TFB has my ID registered to bypass moderation? Who knows?

          • iksnilol

            I think it’s something like that. I know I can post links with no issue.

      • Noishkel

        Yeah I was about to say… that’s what privates are for.

    • BeGe1

      For general supply lines? Sure. Then again, that’s not the problem, we’ve got supply lines covered quite well anyway.

      For combat patrols? Probably not. They’re not particularly tactical. And actual combat patrol type movements are the issue to be solved.

      • The Bellman

        “You have horses! What were you thinking!”

    • The Bellman

      You might want to read the literature about the performance of the German Army’s mule-based logistics.

      I haven’t read it closely, but the impression I get is that it was altogether poor and was the primary factor to blame for the weak logistics of the Wehrmacht. Especially on the Eastern front.

      Maybe doesn’t wholly apply to Afghanistan, but a lot of the issues you’ll see (having to supply horsefeed and large quantities of water, spooked to the point of complete uncontrollability by nearby explosions) are pretty informative.

      • gunsandrockets

        When you don’t have enough trucks, or enough gasoline, or enough people who even know how to drive trucks, you do like the Germans did in WWII and use horses.

        • mosinman

          and proceed to lose the war

          • iksnilol

            Everybdody used horses during WW2… even the US.

          • Major Tom

            We even had a good old fashioned cavalry charge with em in the Philippines in 1941.

            It was the last time we ever did that.

          • iksnilol

            Not for charging, but for transport.

          • mosinman

            yes, but the US and USSR used trucks for logistical purposes and in far greater numbers than the germans did.

          • Iggy

            Fun fact, the US army had to reestablish it’s Mule Corp in WWII during the invasion of Italy, because much of the terrain was only accessible via narrow trails. It had been disbanded in an effort to modernise and they had to track the former members who’d been disbursed through the the Army.

          • Kirk Newsted

            Using horses may have been the least of the reasons why Germany lost.

          • mosinman

            i don’t know, having your artillery , ammo, fuel and food being moved by horse drawn wagons might affect how well you can fight , but what do i know?

        • The Bellman

          Yes.

          Not a first choice.

    • Kirk Newsted

      Yeah, but ya gotta keep it away from the natives lest it get molested.

  • gunsandrockets

    Don’t see what a robot mule can do that a cheap Rokon with a sidecar couldn’t do almost as well.

  • Some Rabbit

    It’s slow, the enemy will hear it coming a mile away and I suspect it wouldn’t handle being shot any better than a live pack animal. More of a hindrance than a help.

    • BeGe1

      Well, the speed and noise are exactly what they’re saying might get fixed eventually.

      As for getting shot…yah, about as likely as anyone to get hit. But at that point you’re at the fight, so at least it got that extra ammo/water/mortars there. It can die now, its job is done 🙂

      • noob

        and get repaired good as new with parts from other robodogs

  • wetcorps

    They’ll need it to carry all that 7.62.

  • DJ

    How about making some of those seat polishers at the Pentagon go on manuvers for 2 weeks carrying a full combat load. I bet their ideal of what soldiers should carry would change. No one carried this much gear during WW2. Shouldn’t have to now.

    • Brett baker

      During amphibious assaults equal weight was carried. Of course, thousands of guys were drowned by the weight of their equipment.

  • NightmareFuel

    Coming soon to a nightmare near you!

  • aka_mythos

    Let’s not kid ourselves… if we gave every soldier one of these to lighten their load a week later we’d find every soldier carrying the same amount of gear with these carrying some combination of extra ammo and mounted machine gun.

  • LazyReader

    I think we learned from Empire Strikes Back, walkers don’t work very well. Something more akin to a Mars rover with six wheels. Cause it’s wheel legs can articulate like the walker “when necessary”. Or you could just whip out the old MULE. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5553f8703159c865e5df6f2efdf095bd7ad1d3c753fa42b925f42269ec7cf9fa.jpg

  • Ryfyle

    Too bad it can’t be driven or sport a recoil-less rifle.

  • Audie Bakerson

    Richie Marcus better watch out.

  • datimes

    Expensive high tech equipment to be abandoned when they break down in the middle of no where.

  • mosinman

    with these machines we will see the return of the mounted knight !

  • Dougscamo

    People for the Ethical Treatment of Robots? PETR? As soon as the snowflakes see this someone will start a chapter!

    • iksnilol

      I’m just sayin’, those folks won’t be skyneted when that day comes.

      • Dougscamo

        Sure they will….gratitude is an emotion…. 🙂

  • TJbrena

    TIME TO LEAVE THEM ALL BEHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIND