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GCN : October 2012
28 GCN OCTOBER 2012 • GCN.COM RECENT DEVELOPMENTS from the technology innova- tors at the Defense Depart- ment call to mind the military of the 19th century-- or ear- lier -- when animals, horses mostly, were a key part of any fighting force. In today s technology-driven DOD, how- ever, the animals are mostly of the mechanical kind. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency re- cently unveiled AlphaDog, a marvel of emerging technol- ogy that could turn the tide of battle, or at least carry a lot of heavy gear for soldiers. And a couple of agencies whose focus is a little more aquatic in nature, such as the Navy, are enlisting another mammal-like device for un- derwater reconnaissance and other tasks. Technically designated as the Legged Squad Sup- port System (L3), the DOD s AlphaDog can traverse rough terrain, plow through under- brush, follow soldiers in the field, act as a charging sta- tion for radios, and generally scare the hell out of any en- emy soldier it comes across. Its original concept was to simply replace pack mules, which are still being used in some part of the world. But AlphaDog has become a lot more than that. The L3 is stu ed with sen- sors that allow wireless con- trol and enough processing power to perform small tasks on its own, such as righting itself if it falls down. It has some voice recogni- tion capabilities too. The current version weighs 800 pounds and can carry 400 pounds of gear for 20 miles without further inter- vention. Essentially a pack mule, it s not quick, walking at 1 to 3 miles per hour, jog- ging at 5 mph and, eventu- ally, getting up to 7 mph over a flat surface. The new L3 is at least two years of testing away from getting certified for use by the Marines, the military branch most interested in this new technology. For its part, the Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administra- tion are swimming with SHARCs, or Sensor Hosting Autonomous Research Craft created by Liquid Robotics. SHARC Wave Gliders are now routinely plying the world s oceans, traveling hundreds of miles for up to a year without human intervention. NOAA launched its first SHARC Wave Glider in April 2011 and has since found plenty of other uses for them, including one that was de- ployed to monitor Hurricane Isaac. The secret of the SHARC (the Navy calls them SHARCs; NOAA refers to them as Wave Gliders) is that it has two power systems. The first is a surface array of solar panels on a surfboard- size keel that s used to power the instruments below. The system also powers naviga- tion control and can direct movements, which if needed can also be changed remotely by a human operator. But it s the second part of the system that makes Wave Gliders so amazing. The part of the robot that floats on the surface is tethered to a submersible device that hangs seven meters into the water. When the top part of the robot rises on a swell, it pulls up the lower part too. Fins on the submersible direct the water and force the craft for- ward, somewhat akin to how an airplane flies through air. Then when the float comes o the wave, the lower part of the robot sinks down, but its fins rotate in the opposite direction, pushing the unit forward again. Right now SHARCs are be- ing used mostly for research, but the possibility of more dangerous work, such as scan- ning for minefields or even es- pionage tasks, could be in the cards for an always on, always moving, low-profile creature of the deep that can operate anywhere in the world, like a shark but without any risk to human life.• NEW MILITARY ALLY: 21ST CENTURY 'ANIMALS' The Legged Squad Support System (L3), the DOD's AlphaDog can traverse rough terrain, follow soldiers in the field, and generally scare the hell out of any enemy soldier it comes across. BY JOHN BREEDEN II EMERGING TECH