Robotic ‘cows’ and drone vehicles are patrolling jungles with Marines

July 16, 2014

The Legged Squad Support System (LS3) walks around the Kahuku Training Area in Hawaii on  July 10 during the Rim of the Pacific 2014 exercise. The LS3 is experimental technology in testing by the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. It is programmed to follow an operator through terrain, carrying heavy loads like water and food to Marines training. (Sgt. Sarah Dietz/U.S. Marine Corps)

More than a 1,000 U.S. Marines are participating in the Rim of the Pacific military exercises in and around Hawaii this month as 49 ships and six submarines from 23 countries test a variety of equipment and work to integrate it. It’s the robot on shore, however, that is getting an inordinate amount of buzz because of its funny looks and potential utility to U.S. troops pulling foot patrols.

Meet the Legged Squad Support System, or LS3. Developed by Boston Dynamics — which was bought out by Google late last year — it can carry as much as 400 pounds of equipment and enough fuel to walk 20 miles over 24 hours, the company says. It began a two-year testing phase in 2012 and is getting some serious work at RIMPAC under the supervision of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. Check it out in action:

The U.S. Marine Corps tested a new robotic pack mule last week at the Kahuku Military Training Area on Hawaii’s Oahu island. The testing of the new Legged Squad Support System (LS3) was part of the Advanced Warfighting Experiment during the international maritime warfare exercise RIMPAC. (DVIDS/ Gunnery Sgt. Jeremy Vought)

The LS3 is constantly checking its footing, making it useful in uneven terrain where a vehicle might not be. In typically funny and blunt fashion, the Marines using it in Hawaii have taken to calling it “the cow,” said Lt. Col. Charles Berry, who is leading the experiment. Three of them are on hand, allowing the troops to use at least one of them at most times. Popular Mechanics has a lot more on it here.

The “cows” aren’t the only robots getting use right now, however. The Marines also are testing a new “internally transportable vehicle” about the size of a small Jeep that can drive itself. Known as the “Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate,” or GUSS, it comes in  handy carrying water and other equipment, but isn’t able to maneuver quite as much terrain as the LS3. On the flip side, Marines are able to hop in and drive it whenever they want, or if the sensors that allow it to drive itself aren’t working. I imagine attempting to ride a robotic cow wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable

Here’s the GUSS in action:

The U.S. Marine Corps tested the Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate (GUSS) last week at the Kahuku Military Training Area on Hawaii’s Oahu island. The vehicle, the size of a small Jeep, can also drive itself. (Kyle Olson/DVIDS)

Berry said there are ongoing conversations about how the two robots can best be used. There also are concerns about relying on them too heavily — if they were to break down in a combat zone, they’d likely need to be pulled out, pushed or carried.

For now, though, the Marines are content to gather information and see what the two robotic haulers can too. And yes: That cow might not be mooing, but it is pretty loud. A unit with it won’t be sneaking up on anyone anytime soon.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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Dan Lamothe · July 15, 2014