Before there was the BigDog - the Pentagon's remarkably lifelike four-legged robot - there was a German short-haired pointer named Laney.
The brown-speckled pooch inspired one of the military's most bizarre and captivating technology projects, its gallops and marches witnessed by millions on YouTube. This week, word spread among the small circle of Defense Department researchers who knew Laney that she had passed away. She was 12 years old.
Laney belonged to Dr. Alan Rudolph, a zoologist who worked at the turn of millennium for Darpa, the Pentagon's blue-sky research agency. Back then, Rudolph specialized in bridging the gaps between the animal world and the military one (.ppt). He recruited honeybees as bomb-sniffers and helped teach machines to climb like geckos and fly like hummingbirds. He even oversaw the construction of "brain-machine interfaces" which allowed robotic limbs which to be controlled by thoughts.
But perhaps his most famous - and most inspired moment - came in the spring of 2001, when Rudolph was taking a walk with his wife and his dog in the woods near the C&O Canal in Maryland. Rudolph had been trying to come up with a way to solve one of the military's most vexing problems: transporting infantrymen and their gear across rugged terrain, where Humvees and tanks couldn't go. As he watched Laney ran at full speed over fallen trees, across streams, and up and down the steep embankments, Rudolph realized the answer was scampering right in front of him.
"We should really build something like that," Rudolph said to his wife.