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What it means when a bomb disposal robot is used as a weapon

A bomb disposal robot has, it seems, for the first time disposed of a human being.

In the hours following Thursday night’s mass shooting of 12 Dallas police officers (5 dead and 7 injured), police cornered the suspect, now identified as Micah X. Johnson, in El Centro College. After a lengthy negotiation during which the suspect, according to the Dallas Police Department, said he was upset about the recent police shootings of black men and wanted to kill white people, talks broke down and the police and the suspect exchanged gun fire.

That’s when the Dallas PD brought in the robot.

“We saw no other option but to use our bomb robot and place a device on its extension for it to detonate where the suspect was,” Dallas PD Police Chief told reporters on Friday morning.

Police detonated the explosive device, killed the suspect and may have just changed law enforcement forever. They also left us grappling with a core question: What’s the difference between a “bomb disposal robot” and a “bomb robot”?

I’ve covered robotics for over 15 years and knew that this was an inflection point. Other experts, like Peter W. Singer, author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century soon confirmed my assumption. “Yes,” he tweeted, this is the first use of a robot in this way in policing.” 

“This is the first time that I’ve heard of this tactic being used by a police agency,” Endeavor Robotics President Tom Ford told me.

Endeavor Robotics (formerly part of iRobot) makes a popular line of defense and law enforcement robots, including the First Look or aptly called “Throwbot,” which is small enough to be tossed into dangerous situations, the Packbot, which is a larger remote controlled robot capable of carrying payloads up to 30 lbs., and then the much larger and more powerful Kobra 710, which has an 11 ft. reach. Depending on capabilities, these robots cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000.

Bomb squads, SWAT teams and police departments around the U.S. are currently using Packbot and Kobra 710 in bomb-finding and disposal operations. They’ve also been deployed by U.S. Armed Services since 2002 in Afghanistan and Iraq. Endeavor Robotics reports selling 6,000 robots worldwide.

Ford told me his company has sold robots to a number of different agencies in Texas. However, he had no information to confirm whether or not the robot used to kill Johnson was one of his. It could also be one of QinetiQ North America’s Talan V robots, which are also popular with law enforcement and the military. I reached out to them for comment, but have yet to hear back.

Whatever robot was used, Singer insisted in another tweet that this was a jury-rig of a remotely operated surveillance robot. 

When I reached Singer, though, he explained that he didn't mean that the Dallas PD has actually jury-rigged the robot, but instead "using the system in a way different than the design and in a way that there's no training manual or organizational plan for."

Ford told me that doesn't see this as a misuse of this kind of robot. He said it's “a good example of another way that robotic technology can be used to keep police forces safe.”

Even so, using a bomb to take out a suspect seems like an act of last resort and one that could result in the destruction of people, property and even the robot

Robots like the Packbot and Kobra, however, are actually designed to get close to and disarm bombs, though it doesn’t always go as planned. Typically, bomb squads attach what’s known as a “disrupter” to the robot’s arm or extender. The disrupter is a slug of water or some other material designed to literally tear a bomb apart before it can detonate.

Ford said it’s unlikely that the police used a disrupter in this instance “I would guess that it’s an actual explosive device.”

And if that doesn’t work and the bomb explodes?

“Robots can withstand some bomb blast,” said Ford. “They regularly go out and dismantle IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices], sometimes they explode and sometimes [the robots] survive. It depends on size of blast and where the blast occurs.”

Bomb squads also have small explosives with them. Singer told me they sometimes use these smaller explosives (he hesitated to call them bombs) to defeat the larger bombs. It's unknown what kind of explosive device Dallas PD used to kill Johnson.

Dallas PD has yet to release any information on the robot or its status.

Remote controlled bomb disposal robots also have another key feature: communication. Ford confirmed that his robots have two-way audio, which allows operators to hear what’s happening and to communicate with the suspects. They’re also equipped with cameras. In fact, Endeavor’s robots can be driven entirely via an iPad. Which means the Dallas PD may have stored audio and visual for all of its communications with Johnson prior to the detonation.

The use of a robot to kill a suspect on U.S. soil may represent a turning point, of sorts, for law enforcement and their use of robotic technology.

We’re used to hearing about drones piloted from thousands of miles away killing Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS fighters (and in many cases, civilians). They’re not getting close to them and negotiating, the military has a target and strikes. In this case, the robot was on American soil and dealing with, by all accounts, an American citizen. Since it apparently carried a bomb with it, the intent may have been to kill the suspect, but it also could have been to incapacitate him. Again, Dallas PD has yet to offer any insight into what their plans were or if this operation went according to plan. I have contacted the Dallas PD for comment and will update this post with any response.

Not everyone agrees the Dallas PD's actions will lead to widespread change. "It’s a first, but I don’t think we’re yet there where we can make that kind of judgement," said Singer, reminding me that robots are already so widely used by military, law enforcement and civilians that this one event is unlikely to change the course of law enforcement and its use of robotic systems. "We don’t yet know enough the circumstances, let alone how people will react to the circumstances," he said.

Endeavor Robotic'’s Ford, though, is more sanguine about the outcome. He acknowledged the extreme difficulty of the situation, but said, “It’s excruciating to figure out how to react and in this case, I think [the Dallas PD] came up with a very inventive method.”

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