Robotic Mule Gets a Throwing Arm

Big Dog2Big Dog, the four-legged Boston Dynamics’ robot that until now looked more like a headless horse, finally has something resembling a head.

The company developing the robo-beast with the Army Research Laboratory funding calls in an arm, though, and in a recent video you can see it grabbing, lifting and hurling 35-lb cinder blocks to the side and rear.

“The goal is to use the strength of the legs and torso to help power motions of the arm,” a company official said. “This sort of dynamic, whole-body approach to manipulation is used routinely by human athletes and will enhance the performance of advanced robots.”

Big Dog funding originally came from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, but was subsequently picked up by the ARL’s Robotics Collaborative Technology Alliance. The objective is to field a fully autonomous robotic mule – something with “animal-like mobility,” says Boston Dynamics – that can operate in terrain too rough for vehicles.

It’s easy to see the advantage of having a robot mule able to clear its own path. In the video demonstration Big Dog’s best cinderblock throw was about 17 feet.

To date Big Dog still requires a human operator commanding it via wireless radio, according to the company. Its own onboard control system operates the legs and provides stability, so that even without command assistance it can handle rough terrain and react quickly to balance itself and stay upright if bumped, as shown in this video from 2013, when Marines put it through some paces as a pack robot.

But future versions will use computer vision, GPS, and light detection and ranging technology for accurately gauging distance to provide more autonomy. This will enable the robot to travel to pre-programmed locations without additional human input.

Ultimately, the Army wants a number of military unmanned ground vehicle systems of various sizes and abilities that can operate largely or entirely autonomously.

In a 2011 report, the alliance said the future of unmanned systems rests with the machines being able to function with intelligence-based technologies enabling them to team with combat troops.

“To act as teammates,” the report said, “robotic systems will need to reason about their missions, move through the world in a tactically correct way, observe salient events … communicate efficiently with soldiers and other autonomous systems, and effectively perform a variety of mission tasks.”

About the Author

Bryant Jordan
Bryant Jordan is an associate editor and White House correspondent for Bryant covers all corners of the military arena, is an expert on "Don't Ask Don't Tell" issues, religious proselytizing and other ongoing military policy issues. He has covered Air Force support missions during the Kosovo War and in 2006 the aero-medical evacuation mission out of Balad Air Base, Iraq.A journalist since 1979, Jordan also covered stories in Lebanon, Gaza and Morocco. During the Vietnam War he was assigned to 15th Admin. Co., 1st Cavalry Division, Bien Hoa Army Base. Before joining Jordan was a staff writer and deputy news editor for Military Timesnewspapers in Springfield, Va.

14 Comments on "Robotic Mule Gets a Throwing Arm"

  1. Not quite a terminator but I'm guessing these will still try to destroy the human race by throwing cinderblocks at our kneecaps.

  2. I see some applications to this:

    Robotic Mule, we're under attack! Use your grenades!

  3. How about: "Build me a bunker"

  4. Not the president | March 17, 2014 at 8:14 am | Reply

    Great for removing problem drunks……

  5. This is literally year-old news… The video was fist posted in march of 2013.

  6. Sadly Google purchased Boston Dynamics and their not pursuing anything military wise for the company now. So Big Dog properly becoming a Big Dead End demonstrator, at least helping soldiers on the battlefield wise.

  7. Great idea.

    -For unit action this thing just went from zombie mule to rescue corp. Guy gets hit send in the dog to drag him back to safety.

    -For SOF we would now have a catch dog for HVT. Kick the door and let the dog do the grab in the face of bullets.

    I still favor my original idea of using this thing as a mobile weapons position. Strap a 50 or grenade launcher to its back and strap some armor on one side. When the SHTF the dog comes lays down and you have a heavy small weapon to use for suppression or taking back the range dominance.

  8. I want a ATAT walker this must be built BIGGER!

  9. DrunkenElephantron | March 17, 2014 at 3:03 pm | Reply

    Oh… my…. God!!!. Thanks for the laught.

  10. If the DoD gig doesn't take hold it can always work in the mail/copy room at major corporations. Imagine that thing throwing mail and packages into your office/cubicle.

  11. If these things have arms now they are going to need free phones. I will alert the Commander in Golf.

  12. What will be next one arm for auto beat off?

  13. Can it be equipped with a soft, life-like hand? That and some gel-lube will make it a soldier's best friend forever!

  14. New baggage handler at BWI airport?

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