Someone important must have gotten an Aibo…According to Wired news, the Army’s Tank-automotive and Armaments Command has just awarded a $2.5 million contract to build a prototype of a large robot dog that would follow soldiers into battle and carry food, ammunition, and medical supplies.

A robot dog could one day become a soldier’s best friend — if an Army program works out as planned.

Today’s soldiers carry as much as 100 pounds of equipment. That’s exhausting, even for the toughest grunt. In the future, the Army wants to dump up to half that gear onto the back of a drone. But military scientists are worried that robots with wheels won’t be able to follow their human masters across mountain passes, up stairs and through forest trails.

To make their way across that kind of terrain, the drones will need legs — maybe even four of them. So the Army’s Tank-automotive and Armaments Command, or TACOM, has just doled out $2.25 million to two robotics firms to prototype a big, mechanical dog capable of carrying ammunition, food and supplies into battle.

The contracts are part of a broader Pentagon look into robots that take their cues from nature. Defense Department-backed scientists are studying swarms of bees and packs of wolves for ideas on how to get drones to work together. Man-made snakes, lobsters, flies — even elephant trunks — are just a few of the animal-inspired devices being created by military-funded researchers.

“We’re coming full circle,” said Paul Meunch, a TACOM research scientist. “In the days of George Washington, the Army used mules and horses. Then it moved on to trucks. And then armored vehicles and tanks. Now we could be swinging back to four legs.”

But reaching that galloping dream won’t be easy. Building mechanical legs that work right has been a brutal task. Spinning a wheel is simple. Swinging a set of legs that can bend, step high and keep a robot balanced is hard.

“We’re at the bottom of the pyramid right now,” said Ben Krupp, president of Yobotics, which won a $750,000, two-year TACOM grant to build a Great Dane-sized drone. “It’s tough just to get a four-legged robot to run across the parking lot without falling down.”

After decades of research, tiny, commercial robo-dogs can now scamper across a flat surface. Child-sized humanoid bots can waddle — carefully. A canine drone in the armed forces would have to do much better, though, keeping up with soldiers marching over uneven terrain.

Powering the dog will be one of the biggest barriers to bringing it into a war zone, Krupp said.

“You can strap an internal combustion engine on its back. But until battery technology catches up, you’re not going to have a stealthy robot, because it’ll be pumping out 110 decibels when it’s running down the street,” he said.

But robotic leg pioneer Marc Raibert said significant power can be saved by getting the dog to act more like an animal.

A computer brain telling a set of motors to spin every time a robot wants to take a step is not very efficient, and it’s not how animals work.

“The body has a mind of its own, with reactions that are governed by the physics of the situation. Getting harmony between the body, mind and the computer brain — that’s the real challenge of the project,” Raibert said. His company, Boston Dynamics, won a $1.5 million TACOM robotic canine contract recently — in addition to a grant from Darpa, the Pentagon’s research arm, for related work. He calls his creation the “Big Dog.”

More here.