Army could ditch robots for mules

There are times when technology meets a limit and an old way of doing things turns out to still be the best. The Army is beginning to think that an effort to use robots for hauling supplies across mountainous terrain might become one of those times, at least for now. The robots aren't doing well in testing, and the Army is considering bringing back an older technology: the pack mule.

The Army is even considering reviving a 19th-century component, the Animal Corps, to care for the animals, said Jim Overholt, senior research scientist for robotics at the Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, in a report in the blog National Defense.

According to that post, by Stew Magnuson, high-level Army and Defense Department officials are considering the revival of the Animal Corps based on comments Overholt made while speaking at a a robotics conference sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association — publisher of National Defense — and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

"Overholt suggested that the talk of bringing mules back to the battlefield is derived from the frustration Army leaders feel that the leader-follower robotics technology is not ready to be fielded while there is an acute need to lighten troops' loads," Magnuson writes.

There have been several research efforts to develop robots to carry supplies and accompany soldiers in the field, most notably one called BigDog funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Magnuson adds. Thus far, none of them have succeeded.

Now the return to animals is a real possibility, writes David Axe at Wired's "Danger Room" blog.

"If everything works out, the future Army could look a lot like the Army of the 19th century, with trains of braying, kicking mules trailing behind the foot soldiers as they stomp through fields, slog through streams and wheeze up steep hillsides," Axe writes. "As in the Army of the 1800s, teams of specially trained veterinarians and animal-handlers would ensure the combat mules stayed battle-ready."

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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