Robotic Devices Have the Potential to Serve as a Threat Mitigating Presence in Law Enforcement.

Last week in Dallas a heavily armed sniper shot and killed five police officers and wounded nine others—seven of whom were also officers.

In response, twelve officers returned fire in a gun battle spanning several city blocks, culminating in an hours long standoff where the killer stated his intention to kill more officers and (falsely) claimed to have planted explosives in the area. Upon weighing the options, the Dallas police chief authorized the use of a bomb disposal robot to eliminate the perpetrator.

This unprecedented use of a robot has quickly ignited a debate regarding ethics and guidelines regarding their use. Wendall Wallach, author and consultant for Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics offered this, “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.”

A debate about the ethical use is likely warranted given that robotics usage is expanding. Over the past few years, military research has driven down robotics prices, and military grade robots are expected to become more affordable due to decreases in the cost of processing power and advances in 3D printing. (The device used in Dallas was a Northrop Grunman Remotec Andros F5, which cost upwards of $100,000.)

As part of the Defense Innovation Initiative, the military has expanded robotics applications. Where they were once relegated to EOD (bomb disposal) units, they are now being used in infantry divisions on the battlefield.

As the military expands their usage of robotics in an effort to preserve our soldiers’ lives, those applications are likely to be mirrored in local law enforcement efforts. Via the Pentagon’s 1033 Program* which pushes military technology to local and state law enforcement agencies, it is increasing likely that police robots will eventually become another commonplace tool.

But in warfare, your objective is to kill your target. Law enforcement has a different mission. So what are the practical applications for robots policing the streets of America?

Well-known robot maker Sean Bielat outlines potential uses that could protect both officers and civilians. Just like all squad cars are now outfitted with laptops and cameras, squad cars may also be equipped with robots. He foresees non-lethal robots (not EOD robots) being armed with a taser, which could approach suspects or motorists without an officer either putting their own lives at risk or unnecessarily using force when it is unwarranted.

In the wake of the shootings in Minnesota, Louisiana and Dallas, tensions between the police and the communities they patrol are at record highs—and likely to lead to further violence. Officers know that they are being targeted and that constant threat also potentially poses a greater likelihood of harm to those the police encounter.

While the use of robots won’t solve the problems that contribute to crime in America, their use can help alleviate the stress and adrenaline fueled confrontations between the police and citizens by using a device with no fear or inherent bias—which could make these situations safer for everyone involved.

*The 1033 Program was created by the National Defense Authorization Act as part of the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) to transfer excess military equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies. Signed into law by President Bill Clinton on Sept 23, 1996, the reutilization program has transferred $5.1 billion in military hardware from the Department of Defense to local agencies since 1997.

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