The untold truth of America's robotic war donkeys

There's a long and storied tradition of enlisting animals to assist humans in times of war or straight-up attempting to weaponize them against enemies. In WWII alone, the British sabotaged Nazis with exploding rats, the U.S. tried planned to make bat bombs, and Polish soldiers adopted a beer-drinking bear. Yet, never in 100 years would that era's evil geniuses have dreamed up the herky-jerky nightmare fuel that is the robotic war donkey. It just goes to show how much times change and that the arc of history bends towards dystopian robot overlords.

The unlovable lovechild of Boston Dynamics and DARPA, this walking heebie-jeebie machine was designed to tote up to 400 pounds of military gear to lighten the load for human soldiers, effectively transforming men into more efficient killing machines. If you're a stickler for robotic taxonomy, you might argue that "donkey" is a misnomer. After all, even though Popular Science describes it as "basically a donkey, except without a head or any distracting biological needs," in the very same article, it notes that the bot is called BigDog. If it was meant to be a donkey, it would obviously be called "BigJack*ss." But in 2015, the Guardian helped foment confusing by has calling BigDog a "robotic packhorse."

Someone really needs to sort out which canine or equine species this creature belongs to. In the meantime, there are other things to unpack about this horse/dog/donkey.

See Spot and run away

In 2015, the U.S. Marines said no to using BigDog on account of loudless. No, it wasn't due to the shrill screams of angels weeping at the site of this beast. Rather, the Guardian explains that BigDog made way too much noise, which would expose the location of troops. Even though the Marines were less than impressed with its inability to shut up, the BigDog sports plenty of other abilities that make it equal parts astonishing and terrifying. Just kidding: all of its parts are terrifying.

The BBC reported in 2013 that the BigDog could chuck cinder blocks, navigate harsh, uneven terrain, and run "28.3mph (45.5km/h) on a treadmill, faster than the fastest human." Per Smithsonian Magazine, in 2020, Singapore's government used a variant of BigDog called "Spot" — also built by Boston Dynamics — to enforce social distancing distancing in Singapore during the COVID-19 pandemic. Remotely controlled and equipped with a camera and sensors, it "barked" a warning when people were too socially close. So that settles the species question: they're dogs, not donkeys. It also has an unsettling implication — given their speed and ability to easily spot you, there's probably nowhere to run and nowhere to hide from these mechanical canines if a government sics them on you. Enjoy the future.