I love puppies--especially when they're stone-cold machines that will stop at nothing to carry out their mission. LittleDog is one such charmer.
The unholy offspring of Boston Dynamics' BigDog, the slightly odd robot pack animal, LittleDog is a DARPA-funded robot platform for studying quadruped locomotion. Of course, the ultimate goal is military applications; think of it as Aibo's hunter-killer cousin.
Researchers at the University of Southern California's Computational Learning & Motor Control Lab have taught the 5-inch-tall pup some better walking skills using techniques from machine learning. The USC locomotion controller lets LittleDog walk over very rocky terrain and haul itself up wide steps without setting a paw wrong. It can also get over holes as wide as the length of its leg, as seen in the video below.
The controller makes the robot learn where to place its feet by examining a human demonstration of walking carefully over difficult ground. It then extrapolates this information and uses it on novel terrain. The approach is also flexible enough for the machine to tackle seesawing ground and other unforeseen obstacles.
Increased speed and smoothness, including recovery from falls, make LittleDog an impressive all-terrain robot. In some DARPA tests it has traveled up to 3.4 inches per second.
LittleDog's lithium polymer batteries provide 30 minutes of continuous operation. Each of its legs has three motors, and a PC-level internal computer handles data from sensors measuring joint angles, contact with the ground, and other variables.
LittleDog is also being developed by engineers at MIT and other universities. The idea is to make robots faster and better at handling whatever the terrain can throw at them. According to DARPA's Learning Locomotion program, "enabling future unmanned vehicles to traverse large, irregular obstacles will allow robots to better contribute to military operations."
I can picture LittleDog tricked out with lasers, clambering over rubble in a war zone in pursuit of a target. Don't even think of getting on its good side with a doggy biscuit.