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Real vs. Robotic Mules

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By Dawn Lim March 9, 2010

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On Afghanistan's mountainous terrain, there are places where Humvees, the military's four-wheeled and diesel-powered beasts, can't go. But mules can. Armed with a knack for survival and "entirely nonpartisan about the contents of its load," writes Susan Orlean in a New Yorker article, the mule has proved a valued trooper in the military.

When the war in Afghanistan started in 2001, U.S. troops led mules bearing military supplies up mountains and high altitudes. The combat load for the average soldier increased by 45 pounds in combat load from 1990 to 2003, making mules extra important on missions. The Defense Department established animal packing as a formal course offering just under two years ago.

The military likes mules so much that it's pushing for robotic ones. "Walking quadruped platforms," funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, are less likely to kick and bite. Under the Legged Squad Support System or LS3 program, a joint effort between DARPA and the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, machines with "control techniques that allow walking, trotting, and running/bounding and capabilities to jump obstacles, cross ditches, recover from disturbances" are in the pipeline.

In January, DARPA awarded a $32 million development contract to Boston Dynamics, the company that created BigDog, the 240-pound robot that autonomously interacts with the environment to transport heavy loads through different types of terrain.

A Fort Benning TV clip says that these walking machines might become "a solder's new best friend." Lt. Col. Matthew England, a branch chief for combat development was quoted saying, "When you talk about the behaviors they've come up with to make this machine work the way it works, that in my mind is revolutionary."

But will something be lost if robotic mules -- which emit a drone that sounds like an electric shaver -- replace real mules. Orlean interviewed Tony Parkhurst, the packmaster at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center who trains marines to deal with (real) mules. He suggested that mules are an assuring presence in stressful combat situations.

Parkhurst said that his favorite part of the job is watching the troops get used to animals. "They transform from, 'Oh, God, he's gonna stomp on me' to hugging on them and loving them and wanting to take them home.' After a moment, he added, "Anyway, when people are shooting at you, anything you can attach to emotionally means something."

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