It is not every day that you get to hear about a Google product tagged as unusable after years of massive investment in time, money and research. But that is exactly what has happened to Google’s Legged Squad Support System (LS3), also known as the Alpha Dog and popularly known as ‘the big dog’ in military circles.
The research and development of ‘big dog’ was partly carried out by Google’s robotic engineering division Boston Dynamics, the Massachusetts based tech outfit it bought just over two years ago. The two and a half year project cost quite a bit too, a whopping $32 million dollars. But of course a company the size Google can easily absorb a hit like that and brush it off.
The other partners in the development of the ‘big dog’ are the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. And it was the two partners, naturally, that advised the US Army to drop further development of the project (and a big pay day for Google) because the LS3 was too loud.
The petrol-powered machine was really very useful in various tests carried out by the military. The LS3 which resembles a headless pack mule of metal, was capable of carrying about 180kg of a soldier’s equipment over all kinds of terrain. It is also capable of interpreting audiovisual commands. It seems such a shame that a truly useful ‘dog’ could be binned for a flimsy excuse as too much noise.
In the context of a battlefield, it easy to understand why the project was cancelled. The noise made it all too clear the LS3 would give out the position of soldiers to the enemy, especially in situations where stealth was required.
Boston Dynamic did create a quiet version of the LS3 known as Spot. But this version of the machine came with its own limitations too. It was able to carry just one-tenth of what LS3 could haul. And it’s capacity as a robot was far less than that of LS3. While it might seem obvious that the best way to resolve the issue is to reduce the noise level of the LS3, in practical terms, it was rather difficult to actually make the robot silent to an acceptable level.
When Google acquired Boston Dynamics in 2013, it indicated that making robots for the military was not its long term goal, saying it’s main objective is to make robots for manufacturing and industrial uses.
Talking to the BBC, Noel Sharkey, a director at the Foundation for Responsible Robotics had this to say,
“Spot … lacks the autonomous operation of Big Dog, but that really is not so much of a problem and would not require a vast amount of research.The problem is that to take the extra steps needed to upgrade the battery-driven Spot to the level of Big Dog could require a couple of years development or more and thus a new Darpa contract.So, what this looks like is a face saving statement by the Marine Corps to make it look like they are dumping Google/Boston Dynamics before they they got dumped themselves.”
So in a nutshell, it appears that US military are a sensitive bunch. Making the first move to severe their relationship with Google, before Google decides that it was no longer profitable to work with them.