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Published: January 16, 2009

The military industrial complex is getting ever more complex, lately pursuing one of the lessons of the Iraq war: the Pentagon’s announced need for a robotic pack mule with the moving legs — not wheels — and stamina to haul a squad’s equipment up and down the worst battle terrain. Mules and donkeys were military beasts of burden for centuries, and they still are in some armies working the rougher parts of the world. But the Pentagon is seeking a robot version to go with all the night goggles, pilotless drone aircraft and other gadgetry of high-tech warfare.

Before taxpayers have a good bray, they should check out a pioneer four-legged robot called BigDog that can be seen schlepping relentlessly on YouTube. The doughty 2-foot-high creature picks its way on four legs through obstacle courses of street rubble, ice-slicked pavements and rock-strewn hills. It maintains its balance through thick and thin, its four legs touching about smartly like tentacles, even when a human tester shoves the robot in a failed attempt to floor it. With its payload, the canine robot was aptly described in a CQ Weekly report as resembling “two ballerinas carrying a sofa.”

Developers are being solicited by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for a larger mule-size version called the Legged Squad Support System. It must demonstrate that it can loyally follow a squad leader at up to 100 yards, keep moving for 24 hours straight, carry 400 pounds of stuff, leap small ditches and wade through 3 feet of water. Should the recruitment of a few good androids prove successful, the Pentagon hopes to boost not just battle capability but, somehow, the morale of humans one-upped by a machine.

The eeriest part of all this is that the mule can’t be laughed off by any sentient creature walking about who dodges a citizen hurrying by on a Segway. In such a time, Why is a less relevant question than How Soon. After the mule robot, we await the robotic version of the war elephants of Hannibal, who insisted two millennia back, “We must find a way, or we will make one.”

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