Pack mules, vultures beat out robots, high-tech tracking

Maybe new technology isn’t the answer to everything. Sometimes, it seems, you can do as well or better with a mule, a draft horse or even, gulp, a trained vulture.

The Army, which has been testing robotic vehicles for moving supplies across rough terrain in Afghanistan, is considering abandoning the robots and going back to the old ways of using pack mules.

Officials are even thinking of reviving the Animal Corps, whose heyday was in the 1800s, to manage the mules, according to a National Defense blog post.

Research and development efforts to develop leader-follower robot technologies, in which robots would follow troops in the field, have hit a wall, Stew Magnuson writes in the blog. Jim Overholt, senior research scientist for robotics at the Army Tank Automotive Research Development and Research Center, has suggested going back to pack mules as a way of taking the weight off of warfighters who need to carry a big load of equipment, Magnuson writes.

The Army won’t give up on robotics, Overholt told National Defense, but mules would fill an immediate need.

Meanwhile, police in Germany looking to improve their methods of finding dead bodies aren’t pursuing sensors or Global Positioning System applications. They’re training vultures.

The BBC reports that police are working with three vultures — named Sherlock, Miss Marple and Columbo — at a park in northern Germany, to train them to find hidden bodies. Police think vultures could do better than sniffing dogs when a search has to cover a large area of difficult terrain, the report states.

Vultures aren’t pretty, and they smell even worse. But they have incredibly sharp eyesight and olfactory senses, able to hunt for carrion below the forest canopy while flying high above.

German police are using a piece of shroud from a mortuary in their training exercises — a far cry from night-vision goggles and other more sophisticated tracking methods common today.

And in northern Vermont, an old-fashioned approach isn’t replacing technology, but it is making it happen.

Crews bringing broadband services to Greensboro Bend on Standard Mountain have found that the best way to bring fiber-optic cable to the village was on hoof, writes Eric Blokland at 

They’re using a 1,700-pound Belgian draft horse named Fred to help meet the state’s goal of providing Internet access to every home in Vermont by 2013.

Mules, vultures and draft horses won’t replace much technology, of course, any more than carrier pigeons will replace e-mail — although in 2009 a company in South Africa with a slow Internet connection found pigeons to be faster for large file transfers. 

But it’s nice to know that the old ways at least sometimes still work best.


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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