Science Channel - InSCIder

8 Dec

Robot Dogs of War in Development Now

Alpha Dog COURTESY OF US Marine CorpsIt says something about the human-canine relationship that once scientific visionaries came up with the idea of anthropomorphic robots, it didn't take them long to dream up mechanical dogs to keep them company. One of the big hits of the Westinghouse Electric pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair in New York, for example, was Sparko, the cute little metal terrier who did tricks while Elektro the robot stared at the audience and uttered his handful of recorded words. And who could forget Rags, the four-legged cyborg in Woody Allen's 1973 futuristic comedy Sleeper, who scampered around at the feet of the household automatons and inspired the wisecrack: "Is he housebroken or will he be leaving little batteries all over the floor?"

 More recently, from 1999 to 2006, electronics giant Sony produced Aibo, a $2,000 computerized mechanical dog that not only could bark, nuzzle a ball and lift its leg as if to relieve itself, but could utter 1,000 words and provide a dog's-eye perspective on the world through a video camera implanted in its head. Sony actually managed to sell 150,000 of the artificial creatures; one California engineer reportedly owned 56 of them.

But not all robot dogs are designed to be cute and cuddly. For roughly a decade, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been pushing to develop what it calls "biodynotics" — that is, multifunctional mobile robots that mimic various animals.  This technological analog of evolution has spawned bizarre devices such as a robotic lobster that may someday protect U.S. Navy craft by hunting for mines buried  in shallow water, and also cyborg insects, which I wrote about in this blog post back in 2009.

But the most fascinating biodynotic project has to be the effort to develop a canine-like robot, the Legged Squad Support System (L3), nicknamed "Alpha Dog,"which someday may trot alongside soldiers and Marines in the field. According to this article from Army Technology, a defense industry news website, the Alpha Dog is equipped with sensors that enable it to distinguish between trees, rocks, terrain obstacles and humans. According to this blog post, DARPA also eventually hopes to equip Alpha Dogs with speech-recognition capabilities, so that humans could direct them with simple commands, such as "sit," "stop," or "come here."

Check out this video clip of the Alpha Dog recently published on YouTube by Boston Dynamics, the company that's developing the robotic dog for DARPA. 


 The Pentagon's scientists want Alpha Dogs to carry hundreds of pounds of gear and to serve as charging stations for radios and handheld computers. Additionally, it's not hard to envision future versions of the devices acting as bomb sniffers, or even as the 21st Century equivalent of the powerful, fierce Rottweilers that Roman Legions used to guard their camps. 

Maybe it's the dystopian visionary in me, but I also could envision robotic military dogs being used for more sinister purposes by authoritarian regimes. Researchers already have developed robotic jaws capable of biting and chewing for use in studies of dental materials, and that technology might eventually be repurposed to create a canine cyborg capable of chomping down on a leg or arm or ripping open soft areas of the human body. Imagine the terrifying effect of a pack of incredibly powerful robotic attack dogs being unleashed on unarmed protesters at a Democratic rally, and you'll get a sense of how powerful of a weapon robotic dogs might be for crushing dissent. Even against armed rebels hiding out in rough terrain, such devices could be horrifyingly effective. Or maybe it'll even be used like the mechanical hound in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which helped book-burners uncover hidden libraries.

So what do you think? Are robotic war dogs a good idea? Express your opinion below.

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