Police in the United States rarely use lethal force against suspects. The most common weapon for police is a gun, and the average police officer carries a firearm about three times per day. The vast majority of these incidents occur because of a threat or the discovery of evidence.
Police rarely confront suspects armed with deadly robots. In fact, only one police department in the country has ever used such a weapon, and it was on an airport tarmac where no one was at risk.
In 2014, Boston-based defense contractor QinetiQ opened its first U.S.-based facility in Florida as part of its ongoing effort to become a leader in developing advanced technology that allows law enforcement agencies to better protect themselves against potential threats posed by terrorists, criminals and other violent individuals.
The company manufactures its robots in China, where they can be more cost-effective than if they were made in the United States due to lower labour costs and less stringent regulations regarding working conditions for employees at facilities located overseas. The US military has been testing its unmanned aircraft for years, but the police haven’t. That could soon change.
There are two distinct categories of robots: lethal and non-lethal. Lethal robots are those equipped with weapons that can kill or incapacitate their targets. Non-lethal robots are often used for crowd control, but can also be used in other ways, such as helping search and rescue operations.
The US military and Police already employs a number of these kind of robots. They include remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that dive into water and spy on enemies from underwater; bomb disposal robots that can defuse explosives; and even robots that help soldiers carry heavy loads during combat missions, such as wounded soldiers off battlefields.
Non-lethal robots have been deployed by law enforcement agencies too, but they often don’t achieve the same level of success as their lethal counterparts because they lack the ability to kill or injure people or animals. For example, one robot developed by Miso Robotics is designed to be used in public spaces like malls and airports without causing any harm to people inside it or around it. The US military has been testing robots that can be deployed to gather intelligence, but the police have yet to adopt them.
The Department of Defense (DoD) is experimenting with autonomous systems as a way of increasing their effectiveness and decreasing human casualties, but it's unlikely that the police will follow suit.
"There are no plans currently for these systems to be used by law enforcement agencies," said Jason Rechtman, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies robotics policy.
The most notable recent incident occurred in 2015 when an experimental robot from Boston Dynamics was programmed to keep moving toward a target even when told not to do so. The robot's handlers forgot about it and left it charging after getting distracted by other research projects, which led it into a wall and caused it to snap its own arm off at the elbow.
This isn't the first time something like this has happened with a robot: In 2013, a similar malfunction led another Boston Dynamics robot off course while testing out its autonomy at MIT's Kiva robots lab (see "Why This Robot Arm Broke
The robots are used as an alternative to deadly force, which is usually reserved for suspects with a weapon. The robots are also used for a variety of other tasks, such as searching for bombs or helping to clear debris from collapsed buildings.
The first time the US police department deployed the robot was in 2017 at the Boston Marathon bombing site. The device ran over several hundred feet and collected samples from the area where suspected bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hid for hours after the attack.
"It's a new way of working," said David Molania, who leads the US Marshals Service's task force that operates the robot called PackBot 1800RX.
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