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 a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BryantJordan.
  • William_C1

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

  • BlackOwl18E

    I see some applications to this:

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

  • rtsy

    How about: “Build me a bunker”

    • Warfighter

      Big Dog, dig my trench!

  • Not the president

    Great for removing problem drunks……

  • Ben

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

  • Rob C.

    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.

    • xXTomcatXx

      All the designs and tech that came out of it are probably owned by DARPA. That’s what demonstrators are for. Google bout the expertise, but the already completed work surely yielded great technology that will go into R&D projects that the services can take on.

  • C-Low

    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.

    • Zephy

      Problem with using it as a mobile weapons platform is that legged platform was never a good platform in the first place for gunnery… and this is on top of the obvious problem: ie: how to not become scrap metal when someone points an RPG or a grenade launcher at it’s direction once it starts attracting fire by becoming a weapon platform…

      the current BigDog doesn’t have that much of a problem in particular since it’s a mule.

      but once u arm it, and armor it you can bet it’s going to attract heavy fire…

      And how to armor it? at best protection against small arms is all that will be achievable without losing it’s existing movement capability and even then the legs are not likely to be within the protection since armoring it is impossible without drastically diminishing the power output of normal limb movement (much like why humans don’t generally put loads on limbs as they destroy limb efficiency.. but on the body instead).

      Not impossible to do, but it’s hardly going to be efficient at all at it…

  • Lance

    I want a ATAT walker this must be built BIGGER!

  • DrunkenElephantron

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

  • tmb2

    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.

  • hibeam

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

  • chris

    What will be next one arm for auto beat off?

  • Joey Byden

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

  • dave

    New baggage handler at BWI airport?