Law enforcement agencies have been using robots for tactical operations and bomb tech applications for more than 20 years. These machines can be sent into dangerous situations in advance of officers and even instead of officers. Police robots can gather intelligence on barricaded suspects, conduct surveillance, distract gunmen during tactical ops, aid communications, examine explosive devices, and even neutralize explosive devices. The benefits of these unmanned ground systems (UGS) are numerous but all that capability comes at a price, sometimes as high as six figures. So agencies buying robots need to know what they will gain from the purchase and how to maximize their return on investment.
Before Buying a Robot
The most important thing a law enforcement leader needs to know when starting the process to add a robot to his or her agency's toolbox is the reason or reasons it is needed. Many law enforcement robots are suitable for multi-purpose use. For example, large bomb disposal robots can be used for barricaded suspect operations. However, some robots are designed for a specific purpose and are not suitable for other uses. For example, small robots designed to be thrown into buildings have limited capabilities because of their size and available options.
Typical options that can be acquired to customize the robot for specific missions include such tools as a multi-axis arm for opening doors and carrying and/or using tools. The UGVs can also be fitted with cameras, sensors, communication systems that allow officers to communicate with barricaded subjects, bomb disruptors, and other tools.
One very important consideration for any agency buying a robot is at what distance it will be operated. "This is such an important question," says Kamila Blain, sales account manager for law enforcement at FLIR Systems. "A robot can be easy to operate, pick up a lot of weight, and have the best cameras—but if you can't get the robot to the danger area and keep officers at a safe distance, then what's the point?"
Pricing and Funding
The "point" has to be clearly articulated by the agency to the people who govern it because robots capable of conducting law enforcement operations are not cheap. Small systems are available for $20,000 or so. Larger multi-purpose tactical and bomb tech robots can cost more than $100K.
Experts say grant funding is used for many police robot purchases and some manufacturers provide their customers with assistance in applying for the grant. FLIR, for example, offers templates customers can use for grant proposals.
"The reality for LE agencies is that budget dictates much of the decision," says Blain. "Many great robots are available in the market, but often times agencies are not able to afford them. Grant funding is responsible for the majority of funds used for UGVs. This means the work needs to start early in the process. Agencies must think about robots as a tool in the toolbox. The more they're able to use it, the better their chances of getting funding to purchase one."
Learning to Use It
Once a robot system is acquired, agency personnel needs to learn how to operate it proficiently. On average it takes about a day to get up and running with a robot. More complicated missions can require as much as five days of intensive training.
FLIR's Blain says operating a robot is a perishable skill. "It is advised that team members train regularly with the robot in various operations.
Channce Rising of Superdroid Robots says learning how to operate a tactical robot's multi-axis arm can be the most difficult aspect of training. "Driving with the arm changes the center of gravity when trying to navigate rough terrain or an urban environment," Rising explains. "The more you train with the arm, the better you get." Rising even says he knows some police robot operators who train with the systems using them to grab drinks from refrigerators, a process that involves driving the robot to and from the refrigerator, using the arm to open and close the door, then using the arm to grab the drink.
Blain says some FLIR robot operators train to use the robots with their team multiple times a month. "Many agencies have access to buildings that are about to be torn down, so officers can practice clearing a building they've never seen before, shoot a disruptor, practice explosive door breaching, etc. Some teams get together with other area teams at bigger regional trainings to practice working together and see what others have for tools. Also, multiple times a year there are events where agencies can get together with other U.S. and international teams and learn from them. These sometimes include 'robot rodeos' where scenarios are set up to test the teams' and their robots' abilities."
Maintenance and Readiness
Law enforcement robots do not need much in the way of routine maintenance. Blain recommends that operators periodically inspect the robot's tracks for stretching or nicks and make sure that no debris or rocks are in the bogie wheels because that can cause chipping.
It's also important to check the robot regularly to ensure that it is ready for a bomb squad or SWAT callout. "I recommend checking it every two weeks," says Rising. "You need to check the charge and top off the battery," he says. Users should also check the batteries in the control unit.
Planning for the Future
FLIR's Blain says the question most agencies don't ask before buying a robot is one of the most important. They need to know what the future holds for their UGV systems, she says.
"Many of us live in the now," Blain explains. "But when looking at robots or any technology that you'll have for a long time, it's important to ask about the product roadmap and how your mission fits into it. Some agencies get stuck with robots that offer little or no upgrade opportunities."
Editor's Note: David Griffith is executive editor for POLICE Magazine, a sister publication of Government Fleet. This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of POLICE.