We often think of our soldiers as traveling in heavy-duty machinery such as trucks, tanks or helicopters, but the reality is that they often have to get around on foot in all kinds of terrain that a motorized vehicle couldn't easily traverse.
Enter the AlphaDog.
This four-legged, headless robotic pack mule carries up to 400 pounds, holds enough fuel to travel 20 miles and can even get up from a prone position.
If you look at it and think a horse or mule could do the same thing, think again.
Horses can only carry up to about 240 pounds, and AlphaDog, despite being headless, will be equipped with internal GPS for easy navigation, plus computer vision that will allow it to follow a leader.
The donkey-sized robot, which could eventually be used to carry heavy gear, is being developed by Boston Dynamics, a robotics company, with funding from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Marine Corps. Boston Dynamics also developed AlphaDog's predecessor, BigDog, which could "only" carry up to 340 pounds and cover 12 miles. Also, it couldn't right itself if it fell over onto its side.
However, the technology within BigDog paved the way for its younger Alpha brother: BigDog made a splash when video of it first surfaced (in 2007), because of its ability to walk and balance itself simultaneously -- both difficult feats for a robot to accomplish alone, let alone at the same time.
BigDog represented a breakthrough because it could trace out the features of the terrain and objects it was crossing, quickly synthesize the sensory input about its environment and maintain its orientation using its internal gyroscope. Sensors also helped it keep track of where each leg was and how much force it was using in its contact with the ground, according to MSNBC.
Besides being able to hold more weight and last longer, AlphaDog is quieter than BigDog, making it an even more appropriate companion on a military mission. Though AlphaDog is just a lab prototype now, soldiers and Marines should be testing the robot out in mid-2012, Boston Dynamics President Marc Raibert told CNET.
Meanwhile, the company is also working on a robotic cheetah to refine its robotic running technology and a bipedal humanoid robot.