Several US police departments have deployed the cyber-K-9 robotic dog in different situations, including hostage situations. Those in favour of using it say robots can help keep police officers safe, but critics are worried about how they might be used without clear political guidelines.
The robot is equipped with cameras, lights and a bidirectional communication system that allows the operator controlling it to see and hear its environment in real-time. The New York Police Department (NYPD) acquired the robot in December 2020 and has so far deployed it in active duty three times, the last of which was a few days ago, when it climbed the stairs of an apartment in the Bronx looking for two suspects in an ongoing investigation.
The robot, sold as a “Spot” by robotics company Boston Dynamics, costs US$74,000. NYPD officials have described it as a promising new technology that could save lives and reduce the risk for law enforcement officers, gathering information in places of risk and removing the need to send humans into compromised situations. (Last autumn, for example, it was used to send food into a hostage situation in Queens).
“The NYPD has been using robots since the 1970s to save lives in hostage situations & hazardous incidents,” the department said on Twitter. “This model of robot is being tested to evaluate its capabilities against other models in use by our emergency service unit and bomb squad”.
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, says the deployment of the technology for police surveillance also raises other issues. Could the robot be autonomous? Is it a good investment at a time when communities are examining the relationship between police officers and citizens?
There are questions around whether the police will be transparent, have clear policies on the use of the technology, and ensure that the public is part of the conversation every step of the way.
Boston Dynamics, the manufacturer of the robot, said a clause had been added to the lease that prevented Spot from being used to in any way physically harm or intimidate people.
The Honolulu Police Department is using a Spot primarily to take action in a tent city for homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic. This deployment has also been controversial, albeit for different reasons: according to the Honolulu Civil Beat, the robot dog was bought with almost US$150,000 in federal coronavirus aid money.
John McCarthy, deputy director of the department, said in a statement that the robot had other uses related to the pandemic, including thermal imaging and the delivery of food and medicines.
Much of this work is currently done by officers, some of whom are paid overtime. In the long run, the Spot robot will save money and keep officers safe.