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Infantryman Brandon Dieckmann poses with LS3. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Matthew Callahan)

Boston Dynamics' Robotic Mule Is Doing War Games With the Marines

This is the first time the DARPA-funded robot has been in the field

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The biannual Pacific war practice games -- 25,000 personnel, the Hawaiian islands, and a barrage of fake military emergencies -- have a new participant. It has four legs, and it's quite able for a creature with a hefty anatomy and an artificial brain. 

This month, the Legged Squad Support Systems (LS3) is joining five young marines in the Advanced Warfighting Experiment portion of the month-long exercise. Using automatic computer vision, LS3 is following the team around the grassy island of Oahu while toting up to 400 pounds of stuff. Designed by the engineering company Boston Dynamics, this is the first time the DARPA-funded LS3 is being put to the test in a military setting. LS3 is not to be confused with Big Dog, its cousin robot which you may have seen lumbering around on YouTube. Here's what LS3 looks like running around:

According to a statement, the soldiers are already getting attached to the animated hunk of wires and metal. The small team assigned to LS3 have "affectionately nicknamed" the robot "Cujo." One of the robot's operators "says the robotic mule has become like a dog to him."

That's no surprise. When robotics consultant Julie Carpenter interviewed military personnel who regularly use robots, she found that they often used similarly affectionate language

“They were very clear it was a tool, but at the same time, patterns in their responses indicated they sometimes interacted with the robots in ways similar to a human or pet,” Carpenter said.

Such affection is potentially a problem in combat scenarios, Carptenter told PBS in the fall: “If you feel emotionally attached to something, it will affect your decision-making.”

Nonetheless, the team hanging out with LS3 for the month is excited about seeing the technology being incorporated in the field: 

“It would pretty crazy to see a later version of it 15-20 years down the line and be able to say I was one of the first groups that tested it and brought it to the field on one of the bigger training exercises,” Dieckmann said. “It’s pretty surreal.”

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About Shannon Palus

Shannon Palus is a science writer, and a researcher for Popular Science. Her work has appeared in Discover, Slate, Ars Technica, and elsewhere. She is based in Philadelphia.

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