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. He can be reached via email at [email protected]