Changing Planet

Animals Inspire New Breed of War Robots

Apart from being four-legged animals, what do a cheetah and a pack mule have in common? They’ve both inspired what may be the next generation of war machines.

DARPA, a military research group based in Arlington, Virginia, showed off two new robots this month, one inspired by the world’s fastest land mammal and the other based on the body plan of a familiar sturdy beast of burden.

DARPA “is attempting to understand and engineer into robots certain core capabilities that living organisms have refined over millennia of evolution: efficient locomotion, manipulation of objects and adaptability to environments,” says Program Manager Gill Pratt on the DARPA website.


Picture of Cheetah Bot courtesy of DARPA.


Cheetah Bot

“Cheetahs happen to be beautiful examples of how natural engineering has created speed and agility across rough terrain,” Pratt explained. “Our Cheetah bot borrows ideas from nature’s design to inform stride patterns, flexing and unflexing of parts like the back, placement of limbs and stability. What we gain through Cheetah and related research efforts are technological building blocks that create possibilities for a whole range of robots suited to future Department of Defense missions.”



DARPA announced last week that its Cheetah robot broke its own land speed record of 18 miles per hour. “In the process, Cheetah also surpassed another very fast mover: Usain Bolt,” DARPA said on its website. “According to the International Association of Athletics Federations, Bolt set the world speed record for a human in 2009 when he reached a peak speed of 27.78 mph for a 20-meter split during the 100-meter sprint. Cheetah was recently clocked at 28.3 mph for a 20-meter split.”

Cheetah “had a slight advantage over Bolt as it ran on a treadmill, the equivalent of a 28.3 mph tail wind,” DARPA allowed. Most of the power Cheetah used was “to swing and lift its legs fast enough, not to propel itself forward.”

DARPA is working to create legged robots like Cheetah that don’t sacrifice speed for mobility on rough terrain. For now, Cheetah runs on a treadmill in a lab to allow researchers to monitor its progress, refine algorithms and maintain its moving parts.


Robotic Pack Mule

The first of two robotic LS3 pack mule prototypes “underwent its initial outdoor test earlier this year and has matured through continual testing and improvements to the point that two functioning platforms have started to run through the paces similar to what they could one day experience carrying gear for a squad of Marines or Soldiers,” DARPA said this week.

The goal of the program is to “demonstrate that a legged robot can unburden dismounted squad members by carrying their gear, autonomously following them through rugged terrain, and interpreting verbal and visual commands.”



“The vision for LS3 is to combine the capabilities of a pack mule with the intelligence of a trained animal,” said Army Lt. Col. Joe Hitt, program manager, on the DARPA website.

Improvements to the mule robot include the ability to go from a 1- to 3-mph walk and trot over rough, rocky terrain, easily transition to a 5-mph jog and, eventually, a 7-mph run over flat surfaces, showing the versatility needed to accompany dismounted units in various terrains, Hitt said.

“The LS3 has demonstrated it is very stable on its legs, but if it should tip over for some reason, it can automatically right itself, stand up and carry on. LS3 also has the ability to follow a human leader and track members of a squad in forested terrain and high brush,” Hitt added.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

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Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • King Uncle

    This mule costs 30 million to develop, thats the only real difference to a mule

  • josh staehling

    those robot breeds a flipping awsome

  • Manny

    Why is our government building an army of robots? We are supposedly broke but we are spending millions on robots that we don’t actually need. The US military is top tier with the best soldiers, best funding and the best weapons in the world. An interview with the developer of the Cheetah bot said that he was disappointed his work would only be used for killing people and that the robot would not be programmed to understand the difference between civilians and combatants. I don’t know about the rest of America, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t vote to live in a world with Terminators in it. There are limits to what should be experimented with and what should not. If the government has robots that kill, what protects the citizens of the United States from them? Certainly not the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution because civilian firearms would have little use against a robot that runs 30 mph, let alone a horde of them.
    Furthermore, what ever happened to good old fashioned killing when it meant something? A soldier takes on a burden upon him/herself in the name of the greater benefit of America when at war. At least they have to look their enemy in the eye as they kill them, instead of playing the real life version of Call of Duty with robots from the pentagon.
    How can we put a stop to this? Do we even get a say?

  • AlwisS

    Nice work. Another quadruped inspired by flexible limbs []

  • Richard Wheeler

    Humanity needs to stop warring on itself. Think of how much money and materials we could free up to make people happy and productive if we DEFUND WARFARE entirely. Wars (of all kinds, including “Drug Wars”) are immoral and those who advocate warfare as a way of life only understand death and domination, not life, cooperation, joy and happiness.

  • Nick Vanocur

    “And they came, two by two, and laid low the land.”

  • Tanner Smida

    Amazing work, but I have to agree with Manny from Boston.

  • Nancy Rice

    The cheetah just looked really creepy and unreal. It was kind of scary, especially the noise and the bundle of wires at the top. It looked violent!
    There is no need to spend millions on these with our economy in trouble. I’d shelve it until it’s really needed!

  • khalil ahmed magsi

    that’s very nice ..

  • khalil ahmed magsi

    good my science tecnology..

  • Urine Trouble

    I for one welcome our new robot overlords.

  • Will

    A mule…$200, a robot $30MM, do the math

  • Karl

    If it plays the role of the mule in the army thats good. If its ever in harms way and has to defend itself it can.

  • rick

    The human race today has the ability to destroy itself many times over with nuclear weapons, including many that are lost, and people are worried about robots? I do agree that we spend too much money on this sort of stuff.

  • brando

    why cant we just use horses…….

  • TC

    It is sad that people dream up these technologies and the immediate thought about their application is in warfare. If a team of these robots could be used to bring water and food to people struggling in remote areas, trapped in mines, or otherwise, I would support its development.

  • Martin Yorke

    DARPA just invented the Square Wheel…..Cost is half that of any normal round wheel. Downside is it will only run on special roads at a cost of billions. NASA in the 60’s invented a Ball Point Pen that could write upside down and in the vacuum of space,the Russians used a Lead Pencil. Now DARPA have Invented the Robo Mule or Big Dog……can you see a pattern emerging. The British use one sentence to people with such fool hardy ideas, ‘Please shut the door behind you when you leave’…..but it’s your tax payers money there wasting not mine.

  • lilmookie

    Why are they spending money on this when they could be building battle mechs… what a waste.

  • Jennifer

    AT-AT will be soon…

  • JeffC

    Its called an ATV and they go for less than $5,000 off the shelf …

  • bdog57

    The mule? Meh.

    The cheetah? AWESOME!!!! Scary, yes. But still very, very, very awesomely wickedly cool. Reminds me of the robotic dogs described in Farhenheit 451. Which, of course, were robots used to destroy humanity when necessary and possible (hence, the scary part).

    Packs of those things WILL be used on combatants -I’d put money on it. The intimidation factor alone would be enough to scare some of our enemies into submission. After all, when the operators of the machines have no personal risk at stake, they’ll fight without fear.

    Yes, we have the best soldiers in the world, but I can guarantee you that they’d love the option of mobilizing some of these guys before heading into enemy territory. Life-savers right there (just like our bomb robots and guns that can shoot around corners).

  • Texas Jack 1940

    Answers to some questions: Mech mules don’t need food and water, so what they carry is for the troops, not themselves. Live animals (mules, horses) can be made dead, or worse, wounded, with a single shot; it’s likely the mechanicals would not be so fragile. Mechanicals can be built and programmed in days (or weeks); live animals take years to grow and train. Live animals need rest. Live animals can’t be shipped in a box no larger than they are. And last, mechanicals can’t be frightened into running by explosives and gunfire and blood.
    OK, one more; I suspect that “cheetah-bot” is purely a motion study device, and not an actual attempt at producing a war machine.

  • maxime

    robots arent only gonna be made for war, soon they will replace humans in many physical jobs, they already started replacing us they just opened a robotic Warehouse and over 300 ppl lost their jobs next time they open another robotic warehouse the rest of the ppl will lose their jobs, soon other type of robots will be made, and we will all lose our jobs.

  • Evan

    To all you people decrying “wasting” money on this R&D, do you not realize that many of the bedrock innovations and standards of our day-to-day lives have trickled down into the civilian sector from military-funded R&D (I’m certainly not advocating endless wardriving for the sole purpose of driving jobs, though)? DARPA engages in experimental research, whose efforts could be used for both military and other applications, as some of the other readers have observed (delivering supplies to missing persons in remote areas, etc.). One of the their more famous innovations was ARPANET, which led to this little thing called the Internet, which you all used to access this site and to post your responses to it…

  • Enya Smith

    those things are really scary. What happens when they get the intelligence of a mule or a cheetah? Soon people will be designing them to think for themselves. I’m sorry, I highly dislike these robots. Waste of money and time.

  • Hesham

    it is a amazing robot cow

  • Doroti

    I am highly agnisat using guns in robots. However, this is a shell around a human. The robot is to give the human extra strength, hence the reason they are using a kid for the demo. I am ok with it only because it still requires a human to make the judgment call. It does scare me in the direction we are heading.

  • Ric Stephens

    Many, many of the things you take for granted in your modern life are the direct result of military R&D. A perfect example is the radar that allows your plane to land safely and that makes those pretty pictures on your weather report. To those whining about defunding military endeavors, I say: study history. In the entire history of humanity, the single recurring event that stands out most prominently is warfare. Whether you like it or not, that’s who we are. While we may evolve away from that, it won’t happen next week.

  • John Doe

    OMG this is cool. We are pretty much just awaiting a robot apocalypse, though.

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