You'd think that Boston Dynamics would be all kinds of busy building (and supporting) a small army of Atlas robots for the DARPA Robotics Challenge. But, it looks like they've somehow managed to find the time to continue working on all of their other systems as well, like BigDog's big brother, LS3. Last week, DARPA committed to investing an extra $10 million towards a more robust and (eventually) deployable robot.
DARPA is very specific about what they want to see in the next-gen LS3, namely:
...the development of an enhanced version of the LS3 system with increased reliability and usability, enhanced survivability against small arms fire and a quiet power supply to support stealthy tactical operations.
It's no surprise that quiet power supply is on that list, since LS3's gas-powered hydraulic pump sounds like a swarm of angry bees, if the bees were the size of domestic cats. However, finding a power supply that can keep LS3 running all day isn't going to be easy; it's very hard to match the power density (and general availability) of liquid fuel. One option might be to turn LS3 into a hybrid, giving it a sort of temporary on-demand "stealth mode."
Survivability is also an important step towards deployment. As we've seen, LS3 is reasonably well protected from any trouble that it might get itself into (running into trees, falling into ditches, that sort of thing). It does have some vulnerable spots, though, like all of those complicated (and expensive) head sensors, and we imagine that some of the hydraulics might not react well to being shot either. LS3 isn't designed for combat (videos like these notwithstanding), but if it's to be useful in a gear-hauling capacity, there'll certainly be some risk to the robot, and it would be a shame if a single well-placed round could pit it out of commission.
The estimated completion date for this new part of the contract is March 31, 2015, but we probably shouldn't read too much into that. And anyway, we're secretly (not so secretly anymore) hoping to be riding an LS3 around our neighborhood well before then.