Robotic Police Dogs: Are They the Future of Policing?
Police departments have long used dogs and robots to help them do their jobs, and now, with Boston Dynamics’ dog-like robot, Spot, they have robotic police dogs. Spot is a general-purpose robot with an open API. That means customers, whether a police department or warehouse operator, can customize Spot with its own software. It has a 360-degree, low-light camera and an arm.
Robot technology is a valuable tool for law enforcement because of its ability to provide situational awareness of potentially dangerous environments. According to police departments experimenting with robotic police dogs, these machines are just another tool, like existing drones and simple wheeled robots, to keep emergency responders out of harm’s way as they scout for dangers.
Massachusetts State Police was the first law enforcement agency in the US to use Spot, the robotic police dog. The agency confirmed that it leased Spot for three months and attached the robot to its bomb squad.
Recently, the Honolulu Police Department spent about $150,000 to buy their Spot for use at a government-run tent city near the airport. These robotic dogs can scan an individual’s eye to see if they have a fever (a sign that the person could be sick) and have been used to conduct remote interviews inside the temporary homelessness shelter.
According to HPD’s community outreach unit, Spot has protected officers, shelter staff, and residents by eliminating extended face-to-face contact and reducing the risk of contracting and spreading COVID at the site. Spot has generally been well-accepted in Honolulu, with the HPD reporting that they’ve not had a single person say that they’re worried or scared of Spot.
Public Outcry Over NYPD’s Digidog
However, the same can’t be said for New York. When New York City Police Department introduced Spot after painting it blue and renaming it “Digidog,” it largely went unnoticed until New Yorkers spotted it in the wild and posted videos to social media.
The NYPD saw the use of Spot as a means to save lives, protect people, and protect officers, but many saw the robot as a symbol of both wasteful police spending and increasingly aggressive tactics being deployed by law enforcement, resulting in a public outcry that led the police department to abruptly return Digidog to Boston Dynamics. During its tenure at the NYPD, Digido was used about a half-dozen times, including at barricades and hostage situations – it delivered food to hostages in a Queens home invasion.
For all of its potential, Boston Dynamics doesn’t want Spot weaponized. The company’s acceptable use guidelines prohibit Spot’s weaponization or anything that would violate privacy or civil rights laws. Spot is remote-controlled, and all you have to do is tell it which direction to go, and it can intuitively climb stairs or cross over rough terrain. It can also operate autonomously, but only if it’s already memorized an assigned route and there aren’t too many surprise obstacles. Spot is a very good robot, well-behaved, and doesn’t think for itself. If you tell it to go to the left, it will go to the left. If you tell it to stop, it will stop.
Are Robotic Police Dogs the Future of Policing?
The deployment of advanced technologies like robots all too often happens faster than our social and political systems can adjust. But ultimately, the question of whether the public will accept the use of robotic police dogs is an evolving scenario.
A lot is going to depend on the positioning of these robotic police dogs regarding how police interact with their communities, how these robots are integrated, and the context of use. For example, if NYPD’s Digidog had been used to rescue someone from a fire or deployed as a bomb-disposal-unit robot instead of being brought to a housing project in support of police action, the outcome would likely have been different. The robotic police dog also arrived with little public notice or explanation and was deployed to already over-policed public housing.
The robot’s design may also play a role – Spot has a rather imposing presence. While it’s a little smaller than the robots you see in science fiction, the way it navigates through space gives it this very imposing profile that can be seen as creepy by many human observers. With the increased public scrutiny of policing and police practices, police departments will have to tread carefully and involve the communities they serve in the integration process. Police departments will need to be more transparent and upfront with the public about their plans to test and deploy these robotic police dogs.
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