Marines test giant autonomous headless horsebot

Marines test giant autonomous headless horsebot

Summary: Known in gov-speak as the Legged Squad Support System (or LS3), the idea is to remove the amount of weight a ground trooper has to carry in combat.


With apologies to Washington Irving…this is the story of Ichabot Marine:

All the stories of ghosts and goblins that Ichabot had heard earlier now came crowding upon his recollection. He would, moreover, soon be approaching the very place where many of the scenes of the ghost stories had been laid.

Just ahead, where a small brook crossed the road, a few rough logs lying side by side served for a bridge. A group of oaks and chestnuts, matted thick with wild grapevines, threw a cavernous gloom over it. Just at this moment, in the dark shadow on the margin of the brook, Ichabot beheld something huge, misshapen, black, and towering. It stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveler.

Just then the shadowy object of alarm put itself in motion and, with a scramble and a bound, stood at once in the middle of the road. He appeared to be a horseman of large dimensions, and mounted on a black horse of powerful frame.

There was something in the stranger's moody silence that was appalling. It was soon fearfully accounted for. On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure of his fellow traveler in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabot was horrorstruck on perceiving that he was headless! But his horror was still more increased on observing that the stranger's head was carried before him on the pommel of the saddle.

* * *

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and in this case, I think they're right.


Sometime very soon, American Marines will be fighting alongside armies of headless horse…bots, autonomous robots that walk, run, and canter pretty much like a horse. More to the point of war fighting, these autonomous pack animals can carry up to 400 pounds of payload, in addition to its own mechanical systems.

Known in gov-speak as the Legged Squad Support System (or LS3), the idea is to remove the amount of weight a ground trooper has to carry in combat. A typical trooper often has to carry "more than 100 pounds of gear," which can both cause extreme fatigue (especially in difficult environments) and reduce the agility and flexibility of the fighter.

These things actually look like horses… without heads. But the point is, if one of these devices can carry 400 pounds, it could support up to eight infantrymen, reducing their load by half. It could also support up to four men, reducing their load almost completely.

The horsebot is smart enough to understand some basic speech (so, you could say it's about as old as Siri), and it already knows a few tricks. The horsebot can follow its leader closely and automatically. It can follow a leader's general direction, but find its own way for best footing. FInally, it can also navigate its way autonomously to a pre-designated GPS waypoint or destination location.

While DARPA says the robot could act as a recharge source and provide auxiliary power to squad radios and handheld devices, the agency has not yet released any data on the range or power systems used by the LS3. 

Check out these cool pictures of the Marines' new robotic horse (Gallery)

* * *

There's something special and wonderful about writing about (or at least parodying) Washington Irving and Sleepy Hollow on Thanksgiving week. As a child, every Thanksgiving, my parents and I would, in fact, travel over the river and through the wood to my grandmother's house. We'd leave New Jersey, travel over the Tappan Zee bridge, and drive right through Tarrytown, home of both Washington Irving and neighbor village to Sleepy Hollow.

I've had the pleasure of visiting Sunnyside, Washington Irving's home in Tarrytown on a number of occasions, both in the form of school trips and adult pilgrimage to the home of a great American writer. It's a wonderful place to visit and, of course, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a wonderful story, as fun to read today as it must have been back in the 19th century. I invite you to read it this week, in honor of the holiday.

And if you have a chance, particularly on a cool, fall day after the leaves start to change colors but before the frost sets in, I invite you to visit Sunnyside. It's a very special place to visit.

If you time it right, just as the sun sets and dusk settles in, if you are very, very quiet and hold very, very still, you may still hear the clip-clop of hooves on the local trails. If you're especially quiet and especially lucky, perhaps you'll hear Ichabod himself chanting a melancholy tune among the tranquil solitudes of Sleepy Hollow.

Topics: Government, Government US


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • oh great...

    ...and than you wander why whole world hates you.

    anyway, you cna't produce enough robots as much as chinese can waste people.
    so why bother?
  • These things make the devil's own racket

    and can't go anywhere that a good six-wheeled or tracked ATV can't also go, are a maintenance nightmare, and can be completely taken down by a single-well place shot. So, I have to wonder what the advantages are.
    • re:

      Your problem is that you lack the imagination of a defense contractor.
      Sir Name
    • Legs are better in rough terrain than are wheels

      But getting a machine to operate them efficiently has always been a challenge. Note that people ride donkeys down into the Grand Canyon, not ATVs (legs work better than wheels in hazardous terrain and equines are always more intelligent than motor vehicles).
      John L. Ries
    • "His mind is full of metal and wheels"

      One of the enormous ironies in your choice of moniker is that Tolkien's hobbits (and Tolkien himself) greatly preferred pre-industrial agrarian societies to modern industrial ones; where as your preferences appear to be the reverse.

      With regard to the topic at hand, I agree that on level, relatively smooth surfaces (especially with good roads), wheeled vehicles would definitely work better than legged ones would; they tend to work poorly in rough, mountainous terrain.

      The other irony is that the USMC's reason for existing is amphibious warfare. What is described here would be more supportive of the Army's traditional mission.
      John L. Ries
      • Amphibious warfare?

        That's Phase II. Look for the improved LS3 to sport a tail with a high-speed propeller on the end that gets dipped into the water. All one would have to do is fit the skis, included in the storage bay, onto each leg and the LS3 becomes a JetSki.
        Rabid Howler Monkey
        • The legs would have to be immobilized as well

          Or maybe they'd just be replaced with skis and retractable wheels. Wheels would work better than legs on a beach anyway.

          I'm wondering, though, if Marines or Navy Seals couldn't use some of the tactics employed by Somali pirates for capturing enemy ships (it can't be any harder to put a speedboat in the water from a naval vessel than it is to put a rowboat in, weight aside).
          John L. Ries
      • Every terrain demonstrated for the device in the

        video could be traversed just as well by a wheeled or tracked vehicle.
        • Fair point

          But the real use for such a vehicle would be in rough terrain. Again, Afghanistan comes to mind.
          John L. Ries
  • Can you spot the grammatical error?

    > these autonomous pack animals can carry up to 400 pounds of payload, in addition to its own mechanical systems.
    • Nope...

      Went to engineering school. :)

      Fair point. I'll fix it.
      David Gewirtz
  • My tax dollars at work

    This is what I get for my money instead of single payer healthcare for my family and affordable college educations for my kids.
    Sir Name
    • Wrong country, please try Cuba.

      Our Constitution delegates national defense as one of the *few* enumerated powers of the federal government. Single-payer healthcare is not one of them. Please go pay for your own, or move to a country like Cuba, where the government "provides" for all its indentured citizens.
      • But there's no constitutional reason...

        ...why states can't do it on their own.
        John L. Ries
        • There's no Constitutional reason why the Federal can't do it either

          ...if the voters approve it.
          • It's hard to amend the Constitution

            Proposal by 2/3 of both houses of Congress; ratification by legislatures or conventions in 3/4 of the states.

            And while it might be rationalized anyway, providing health care to all citizens at taxpayer expense probably isn't authorized by the enumerated powers in Article I.
            John L. Ries
      • re:

        No thanks, this is my country. I'm staying and I'd like to see it improved for those that aren't in the top 1% of wealth. However, you and those of your ilk are destroying any hope that my country will ever be anything other than a non-functioning Libertarian dystopia. You need to find a country more to in tune with your values and move there. If you want limited government, no regulations, unrestricted gun rights, enforcement of the dominant religion, and the old entrepreneurial spirit, I would suggest Somalia. You could have a career as a warlord or a pirate.
        Sir Name
      • Actually, no

        We are not supposed to have a "Standing Army" if you want to go all Constitutional.
        • Not true

          Under Article I, Congress has the authority to raise and maintain standing armies, but no appropriation for that purpose can be for more than two years.

          Many early state constitutions explicitly prohibited standing armies, but the 1787 federal one made it almost a moot point, as Article IV prohibits states from "maintaining troops or ships or war in time of peace" without the consent of Congress (which has never been granted to the best of my knowledge).

          It's a good thing that Gouverneur Morris was such a good writer. It makes key provisions of the original U.S. Constitution easier to remember.
          John L. Ries
      • Who is indentured?

        "[...] or move to a country like Cuba, where the government "provides" for all its indentured citizens"

        There's a certain irony in your thoughtful phrased (if tellingly irrelevant, given the mass of free-world countries which have single-payer health care systems) point - how would you describe a US citizen's relationship with the health insurance sector, if not as "indentured"?