The Marine Corps is once again testing quadruped robots to help Marines with infantry operations. The US Marine Corps will this fall start developmental testing of Boston Dynamics Spot quadruped robot, hoping it’ll be ready for a limited technical assessment in 2018, according to Military.com
The ultimate goal is for robots to help Marines in the field, whether with patrolling, reconnaissance or other ground tactics. And it seems the Marine Corps has decided four-legged robots is the way to go.
The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab has been testing the Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS) from QinetiQ North America, a small unmanned system with tank-like treads. But, the report says, Spot’s hydraulic legs might make it more maneuverable than MAARS.
“It’s not a tracked vehicle so it can turn around on a dime. The other benefit of something like that is it can get up when it falls over, whereas MAARS can’t,” says Capt. Mike Malandra. “So that’s really what we’re looking at doing, potentially, with those kinds of things moving forward here in fall: Use it as a surrogate platform for something that is maneuverable in a way similar to a human.”
Starting in 2012, Boston Dynamics’ Legged Squad Support Systems (LS3) was also tested by the Marines. However, issues such as a noisy diesel engine and challenges around fixing the system led to the disappointing end of those trials.
Spot is a smaller, quieter, battery-powered robot, but it couldn’t carry as much weight as the LS3. And the Marine Corps has actually had Spot since the LS3 testing ended, but as Military.com points out, the Marine Corps has pretty much kept Spot in a kennel ever since. “It’s been pretty dormant,” says Malandra. “It’s been a showpiece, really.”
Employees of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Boston Dynamics trained Marines how to operate Spot at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., Sept. 16, 2015.
US Marines and representatives from Boston Dynamics look at Spot. (Credit: Getty Images)
Boston Dynamics Delivers Upgraded Spot Robots
Two upgraded Spot robots were delivered to the Marine Corps on Monday, Military.com says, featuring a radio and a 180-degree camera in the nose and Teleop-assist logic that will help Spot avoid obstacles.
“We’re looking to put them in environments and lanes that are similar to things we’ve come up with through war-gaming and through other things, that fit our operational concept that was just published for 2025,” Malandra said.
“To be able to put [the robots] in lanes where we can evaluate metrics such as lethality and tempo, which are very fluid, and what they actually mean,” Malandra continues. “So how do we quantify that, how do we create a baseline … to evaluate whether or not a system that can provide autonomous tasking is beneficial or not.”
Potential Boston Dynamics Sale
So what does this all mean for Boston Dynamics, which has been rumored to be on Alphabet’s chopping block since March 2016? Well, it seems the Marine Corps has decided quadruped robots are best designed to meet their needs in the field, which is good news for Boston Dynamics.
President Donald Trump has also proposed increasing military spending by $54 million, which should benefit military robotics R&D.
Obviously, there’s a lot of work to be done before Spot is seen alongside Marines in the field, but perhaps this new testing brings the robot one step closer to commercialization and is having second thoughts about selling Boston Dynamics. Although, Alphabet has said in the past it has no interest in creating military robots.
Boston Dynamics employees will tell you their checks are still coming from Alphabet. And perhaps they will be for the foreseeable future.