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.
* * *
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.