Here Comes the Wolf Pack

DARPA has just awarded $32 million to Boston Dynamics to build a deployable version of BigDog, the Legged Squad Support System (LS3).  Here is coverage at NetworkWorld, and here is Gizmodo's short note.  BigDog is part of the inspiration for my thinking about Cowborgs that wander around fields munching grass and producing biofuel (see "The New Biofactories", from last year's McKinsey Quarterly special What's Next).

But there is another obvious application that has been lurking in the back of my mind.  The spec calls for the following capabilities:

  • The robot must support all manner of walking, trotting, and running/ bounding and capabilities to jump obstacles, cross ditches, recover from disturbances and other discrete mobility features. The LS3 must be able to follow a leader between 5m and 100m ahead, in dynamic, cluttered environments with other moving soldiers in close proximity.
  • It must have the ability to perceive and traverse its immediate terrain environment autonomously with simple methods of control.
  • The robot must understand simple soldier-to-LS3 interaction with minimal direct control of the platform's speed and heading (joy-sticking and tele-operating are examples of direct control). The vehicle must require minimal oversight or direct control (e.g. joystick control) from an operator.  Direct control modes should only be used for error recovery, and should not be needed more than 3 times per 24-hour operational period, for no more than 5 minutes at a time.  

With the sort of stability and mobility required to meet these specifications, there isn't any reason you couldn't mount weaponry on the LS3.  You could imagine all sorts of science fiction scenarios with Miniguns or Vulcans, which for all I know might have serious mass issues for either the armament or the ammunition, or might sport too much recoil.  But it would probably be enough to mount cartridge fed shotguns or smaller grenade launchers, or any other weapons platforms now fielded on ROVs.  The combination of autonomous terrain traversing, navigation, and operation from a distance suggest that even early versions could be directed to walk into hostile situations while troops remained out of harm's way.  The requirement to "follow a leader" could be altered to "home in on a transponder" delivered by one of the many ROVs already in the field, whether RC car or airplane.

And just as there is no reason to think the US military won't be mounting weapons on BigDog, there is no reason to think the robots won't be operated in groups.  Imagine for a moment that you are a Taliban or Al Qaeda fighter hanging out in a cave, and you probably don't have a lot of exposure to technology other than what the US military is throwing at you on a daily basis.  Into your cave walks a Wolf Pack of armored DevilDogs armed to the...teeth (?) and probably  demanding your surrender in Arabic or Pashtun.  You say no.  They open fire.  Alternate scenario: You are a militant in Afghanistan and your exquisitely planned ambush of NATO troops is interrupted by a Wolf Pack chasing you up into the hills.

I can imagine that both of these scenarios would require a serious programming effort before a BigDog becomes a DevilDog.  But if either scenario works even once, just imagine the impact on enemy morale.  And how long before the LS3 becomes an ordinance delivery platform, walking into an enemy camp with a 400 lb bomb on its back?  Powerful stuff, that, both as a tactical weapon and a morale buster.

I don't know how I feel about this.  Yes, a Wolf Pack of DevilDogs would probably keep our troops safer.  And this might be a more effective way of hunting down bad guys.  But the spectre of increasingly autonomous weapons platforms should make everyone a little uneasy.

Then again, this sort of investment will make the Cowborg happen that much sooner.  Is that worth it as a sort of "peace dividend" spin off from military spending?  Hmmm.