Using robotic dogs by police goes beyond borders

Photo Credit: Shannon Moorehead (U.S. Air Force)

Already tested in the US, Europe and even Asia, robotic dogs would serve as ideal future surveillance tools

By Kiran N. Kumar

The future of law enforcement is going to be rewritten once Boston Dynamics and Ghost Robotics, the two leading firms succeed in their experimental use of robotic dogs, this time with color scanning instead of black and white cameras.

Boston Dynamics last week said its Digidog Spot is undergoing some updates focused on improving the way it perceives the world at a chromatic level, or in color instead of seeing in black and white.

Already tested in the US, Europe and even Asia, these quadruped robots have hit the roads on experimental basis to operate in difficult terrains and withstand extreme temperatures.

Taking the burden off humans, these robotic dogs don’t need to sleep or eat, but would serve as ideal surveillance tools in the future with cameras to color scan potential bombs and enter dangerous buildings before humans risk their lives.

Read: Sophia Robot is now a Saudi citizen; becomes first ever robot to get citizenship (October 30, 2017)

In Jan 2022, the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement acknowledging trials with dog-shaped “Automated Ground Surveillance Vehicles.”

Developed by Ghost Robotics, the 100-pound robotic dog can traverse the border’s rugged landscape, endure extreme heat, and navigate through homes, stairs and other human environments as an all-in-one surveillance juggernaut.

“We are trying to keep CBP (Customs and Border Protection) and other government personnel in the field out of harm’s way,” Ghost Robotics CEO Jiren Parikh told the media.

Not always perfect
The experiment with robo dogs has not been successful throughout. When Massachusetts state police used Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot in 2019, it was able to open a door with a claw on “head” but in another moment, it was unable to balance on uneven terrain.

In one case, Spot placed itself into “sit” mode when police were trying to get it to inspect a potential bomb, while in another trial, the dog experienced “front leg panic,” before toppling to the ground.

When challenged to climb a steep incline, Spot reportedly got confused and started pacing in place. Citing these instances, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts condemned the experiments.

Nonetheless, last year, New York police department (NYPD), which codenamed it “Digidog” brought it along while responding to a domestic dispute with suspicion of involving a firearm in a public housing unit.

The NYPD’s deputy commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism said Spot had been used in the field six times in a year.

Read: Can a robot be an inventor? ‘No,’ says a US judge (October 7, 2021)

However, Honolulu police wanted to use the Spot to patrol the city’s homeless encampment and take body temperatures of supposedly sick people.

During the Covid pandemic, Honolulu police department deputy chief John McCarthy said it was used to “mitigate the spread of Covid-19 through touchless field screening and interaction with homeless individuals in self-quarantine.”

With Spot, they could avoid potential interaction of police officers with infected people in an encampment and conducted Covid tests and took temperatures, besides helping to disinfect the site and remotely patrol the area.

Apart from the use by police forces, Spot was deployed last March by the US Air Force to “add an extra level of protection to the base.”

They called the robo-dogs “Quad-legged Unmanned Ground Vehicles” which were able to operate in low temperatures, rough terrains and squeeze through difficult-to-access areas using a “crouch mode”.

The Netherlands was the first to use Spot in Europe by a division for special operations to conduct an “initial observation,” before sending in humans. In a video, the robo-dog was used to enter buildings and scan the area and even take DNA samples from crime scenes.

Read: Dystopian robot dogs are the latest in a long history of US-Mexico border surveillance (Februay 16, 2022)

The French military last year deployed them alongside armed soldiers to conduct several reconnaissance tasks though one of the robo dogs ran out of battery and had to be carried out away from the test site.

The use of Spot by Singapore was reported in May 2020 when the Covid pandemic was at its peak. They used it to patrol Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park.

Equipped with a speaker, it could alert park-goers to maintain social distance. The officials reportedly used it to scan and estimate the total number of visitors in the park. But the trials did not go well with the rights groups which have strongly condemned the experiments.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation termed the Ghost Robotics machine a “civil liberties-invading hellhound,” and said robo-dogs threaten and further erode the rights of people living near the border, where the law enforcement agencies are planning to use them heavily.

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