After bomb robot in Dallas, expert wants taser-wielding robot in every police car

One robotics expert believes police robots will be ubiquitous and one with less-than-lethal capabilities should be in every police car just as each cop car now comes equipped with a laptop.

cop car
Credit: Scott Davidson

Whether you agree or disagree with Dallas police blowing up a gunman with a “bomb robot,” the fact that domestic police deployed a killer robot potentially changed everything about policing.

After shooter suspect Micah Johnson killed five cops, Dallas police said they used the robot Remotec Model F-5; the cops put about one pound of C4 on the claw and arm extension before using a detonation cord when the robot closed in on the 25-year-old suspect.

remotec Northrop Grumman

“The era of robocop has begun,” warned Techdirt’s Mike Masnick. But could military-style tech, such as robots, be used in police situations to remotely capture, not just kill, suspects? Are we headed toward a future in which every cop car comes equipped with a taser-wielding robot?  

The “bomb robot” used in Dallas has reignited the militarization of the police debate. Some people, such as FBI Director James Comey, believe social media images have swayed the public’s perception about the militarization of police. Comey claimed that since “monsters are real” and are “equipped with horrific equipment designed to harm innocent people,” law enforcement needs “a range of weapons and equipment” to keep up with the bad guys.

That is allegedly why police departments have armored vehicles and 1,500 of New York’s 36,000 city cops have received “coordinated heavy weapons training.”

Of the 30 largest city police departments in the U.S., the following thirteen will start pairing up officers as a new safety tactic since police “have targets on their backs;” New York City, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Seattle, Memphis, Boston and Portland. That reportedly means additional forces will be deployed to “low-risk events,” Reuters explained, due to the “potential for some extremist or madman to commit violent acts.”

Besides an increased police presence, Thomas Manger, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, predicted police will also increase surveillance. “This will cause complaints about violating people's constitutional rights to free assembly, but it is the only way to guarantee safety.”

But some are going far beyond that; Indianapolis police spokesman Kendale Adams told Reuters that his department “would consider using a robot to deliver a bomb. ‘Our team will consider all options in (a) deadly force encounter’.”

Naturally, robot makers are heartened by such news. Sean Bielat, CEO of Endeavor Robotics, told Defense One:

“Just like you have a laptop in every squad car and cameras in every squad car, you would have a small robot, not an EOD [bomb disposal] robot, but a small robot in every squad car and maybe that thing has a taser device on it, or some other less-than-lethal capability,” he said. “And maybe that’s used to approach a motorist at night when a cop doesn’t want to go up and approach with their hand on their holster. Maybe the robot goes up instead.”

Bielat, who is also a major in the Marine Corps Reserve, suggested police robots will become cheaper and ubiquitous; eventually he believes people will say, “Hey, these things are really useful. What would make them even more useful is x, y, and z, and that probably includes some level of armament.”

“Taking an M240 machine gun and attaching it to a robot may or may not make sense,” he added. “That weapon was designed to be operated by two human beings and a bunch of other things. That may not be an appropriate thing to put on a robot platform, but that doesn’t mean that no weapon system would be appropriate. It just means you’re designing something that’s unique that takes advantage of the robot.”

Some people have compared Dallas police’s remote-controlled use of force to drone warfare, but to robotics expert Peter Singer, the bomb robot in Dallas is unrelated to the militarization of police.

University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo said the Dallas situation raised no new legal issues. He told Fortune, “If officers used drones and land robots in routine stops, it would be problematic if they had lethal force. It would diminish situational awareness and make it easier to escalate things.”

Dr. Patrick Lin, director of the ethics and emerging sciences group at Polytechnic State University, wrote, “A primary goal of police officers, besides protecting the public, is to capture suspects so that they can stand trial. Criminal suspects—again, presumed innocent until proven guilty—are not enemy combatants, and police officers are not judge, jury, nor executioners.”

Yale ethicist Wendell Wallach told Defense One, “Now that we have crossed the rubicon of robots used to kill in domestic applications, strict guidelines must quickly be set as to when this is acceptable. From what little we know, the Dallas PD’s use was warranted. We are now beyond warfare in the use of robots to kill, and should not waste time in addressing how these technologies could expand in totally unacceptable ways.”

If robots, hopefully unlike China's police Anbot, do become standard issue for America's law enforcement, let's hope they don't become infected with malware and turn into Robocop.

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