No need to wait up. The speedier Alpha Dog now trots over flat terrain at 7 mph.

For the last decade now Boston Dynamics has continuously provided some of the best two- and four-legged walking robots on the planet, and they're continuing this trend with their latest version of Alpha Dog.

Most articles about Alpha Dog go kind of like, “Impressive, but man, really loud.” Well Boston Dynamics has just released a video of the new and improved – and much quieter – prototype.

The “pack mule” robots are meant to trudge alongside troops, hauling up to 400 lbs of gear so that soldiers don’t have to. Just this past April DARPA took the robot, formally known as Legged Squad Support Systems (LS3), for its first walk in the woods. It performed well, navigating steep and uneven terrain while autonomously following its human trailblazers. Just a few days ago DARPA released another video in which two Alpha Dog prototypes were trotted out to demonstrate their improved capabilities for the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos, and the Director of DARPA, Arati Prabhakar.

In some (but not all) parts of the video it’s clear that this is a quieter robot. According to a DARPA press release, LS3 is now about 10 times quieter than the first platform. Squad members can even carry on a conversation as they walk next to it – something that was difficult with previous prototypes.

Its speed is improved too. It can climb over rocky terrain at 3 mph and trot at a top speed of 7 mph over flat surfaces, something we haven’t seen before. Should it topple at these higher speeds it can automatically right itself and get going again. And in addition to being faster, quieter, and more stable, Alpha Dog is ever more obedient. Its improved “eyes” allow for better tracking to follow troops through forested terrain and high brush while avoiding trees and other obstacles.

DARPA program manager, Army Lt. Col. Joe Hitt, is pleased with Alpha Dog’s progress. “We’ve refined the LS3 platform and have begun field testing against requirements of the Marine Corps,” he said in the press release. “The vision for LS3 is to combine the capabilities of a pack mule with the intelligence of a trained animal.” In the near future I expect we’ll see exactly that: a video demonstrating the robot’s ability to correctly respond to a series of barked commands.

DARPA will continue, over the next year and a half, to work with military personnel at different bases around the country, finishing with a Marine Corps Advanced Warfighting Experiment in which the robots will perform with troops in operational exercises. If they continue to march doggedly onward like their Alpha Dog, making faster, quieter, and smarter still, Boston Dynamics could very well produce an indispensable soldiers’ best friend.

[image credits: Boston Dynamics via YouTube]

images: Boston Dynamics via YouTube
video: Boston Dynamics via YouTube

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.