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Cool cop tech: 5 new technologies helping police fight crime

Throwable robotic cameras, gunshot detection systems and even familiar iPads are among the tech tools in police departments' arsenals.

By Todd R. Weiss
February 16, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - CSI and its imitators have introduced TV viewers to some of the advanced technologies used by crime-scene investigators. But they aren't the only law enforcement personnel benefitting from technology; police officers across the nation have an arsenal of high-tech devices to help them investigate and solve cases.

From eye-in-the-sky drones to GPS vehicle pursuit darts and even ordinary iPads, here's a look at five tech tools that are being used or tested by police to protect their communities. Some of these technologies are relatively uncontroversial, while others have raised eyebrows among privacy and civil rights advocates. The legality of one has even been called into question by the courts, highlighting a potential pitfall of using advanced tech to conduct police work.

Need to see what's happening? Toss in a robotic camera

When it's too dangerous to send a police officer into an active crime scene -- or in any situation that requires "eyes" where there's no clear line of sight -- police can rely on a throwable robotic camera. The device has an electric motor and special wheels that allow it to move, climb and explore at the whim of an officer who operates it wirelessly.

In Eden Prairie, Minn., the police department's emergency response team has been taking along one of those devices, the Recon Scout Throwbot, every time it hits the streets.

"It deploys with us like we would carry a rifle," said Sgt. Carter Staaf, a spokesperson for the team. "You never know where you are going to need it. It always comes in handy somewhere. If we have a warrant search and there are multiple levels in a home, we can throw it upstairs and get a set of eyes up there."

Developed by ReconRobotics in Edina, Minn., the Recon Scout is a "force multiplier," Staaf said, explaining that the device gives police officers a critical advantage when they can't see a suspect directly. In such cases, many police departments send in a police dog to scope out the dangers, but that can be risky for the animal.

"That's a $20,000 dog and there's an emotional attachment to it if something happens to it," Staaf said. "There's zero emotional attachment if something happens to the robotic camera. If it gets shot, picked up or smashed by an assailant, then at least you know that the bad guy is there."

Recon Scout XT throwable robotic camera
The Recon Scout XT is the newest model of a throwable, wirelessly controlled robotic camera. Credit: ReconRobotics.

The robotic cameras can be used indoors and outdoors. In Minneapolis, police use them for bomb detection by using the remote controller to drive them under vehicles to look for suspicious packages, Staaf said. "You can dream up the scenarios that you want to use them for."

The Eden Prairie Police Department spent about $9,000 for its device, the original Recon Scout model. The robot has been improved with new features in the latest XT version, according to Staaf, who has looked at the new model but hasn't purchased it. "The XT model is a little faster and quieter and has been ruggedized more," he said. "The wheels allow you to crawl over more kinds of turf. They really did a nice job with that."

In future models, Staaf said he'd like to see improved ruggedness in the controller and improved water resistance in the camera unit.

There are some special requirements when it comes to operating the device, Staaf said. First, officers have to be specially trained to run it. Second, when using the device at a dangerous crime scene, the operator must be accompanied by a fellow officer to cover and protect him, since his attention will be focused on the device.



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