Lie down with Big Dog, wake up with budget deficit

If you have a high tolerance for military jargon ("situational awareness"), civilian cliches ("a leg up on the competition"), and generally meaningless phrases dripping with overwrought technophilia ("pushing the envelope on what reality is as we know it"-- what?), have I got a video for you.

The Fort Benning public affairs office has discovered Big Dog, and as their correspondent puts it, "the robotics revolution is here." The Georgia base's news service, the Benning Report, covered Big Dog being put through its paces.

But the most astounding information the video has nothing to do with Big Dog. Between 1990 and 2003, the packs U.S. soldiers have to carry have ballooned an eye-popping 45 pounds. That's a total of 145 pounds! That was the rationale behind Big Dog--after all, on the battlefield, mobility translates into survivability. "If a kid's carrying a Winnebago on his back and he gets into a firefight," LTC Matthew England explains in the video, "and he can't move quickly enough, he could become a casualty."

So let's say you can still function well with 50 pounds on your back. That means offloading 100 pounds onto your accompanying Big Dog, which means it can carry about 2.2 soldiers' gear. (And as we know, there is no such thing as 0.2 soldiers.)

Now let's say the Big Dog can carry 100% of its weight (I'm just making that up. I have no idea what is possible). That's 220 pounds, which is 50 lbs x 4.5 which is really the lower limit of what would be worth the cost of a pack bot (if it can only rid you of 20 pounds of a 145 pound pack, is it really worth the cost?).

So at 100 pounds of pack, that's one big dog per 2 soldiers. At 50 pounds of pack, that number increases to one big dog per 4 soldiers.

A squad has 10 or so soldiers, a platoon has four squads (44-60), and a company has four platoons.

That means the best case for a single squad is two or three big dogs coming along. Multiply that by four for a platoon (about 10), and by four again for a company (about 40--you'd have a small platoon of big dogs per company).

If you want them to take over most of the weight of the pack, that's 4-5 Big Dogs per squad, 16-20 per platoon, and consequently 64-80 Big Dogs per company of soldiers. That's a lot of fuel, and a lot of creepy no-headed quadrupeds. And if one of them breaks down? Is it cheap enough to leave by the wayside? Or does one of the Big Dogs carry it home?

I cannot begin to guess how much these things cost, but in the context of other military spending, I'd put this thing at least at $100,000. At that point the Army might look to cost-cutting measures like getting each soldier his own personal Sherpa.

Related Stories

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Advertisement
Advertisement