By Dan Gettinger
Like many public safety departments across the country, the St. Louis County Police Department owns a robot. It is a small, unmanned ground vehicle that is used for bomb disposal. It was acquired through the Department of Defense 1033 Program that transfers used military equipment to local police. It is unlikely that this unmanned ground vehicle played a role in the police response to the Ferguson protests; nevertheless, the St. Louis County Police’s actions over the past week have focused the nation’s attention on the militarization of law enforcement, a trend that includes the acquisition of robots, both ground-based and aerial. This is something we’ve written about before. Robots and other military equipment are an increasingly common presence in American police departments.
Much of this hardware comes to police departments through the 1033 Program that St. Louis took advantage of for its robot, as well as from grants provided by the Department of Homeland Security. These grants allow police departments to acquire expensive robots and other hardware without having to dip too deeply (if at all) into their shrinking budgets. The 1033 program, which gets its name from Section 1033 of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act, allows the Department of Defense to transfer excess equipment to police departments to help in anti-drug operations. The 1033 Program is based on an earlier version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which was passed in 1990. According to the program’s website, in the past sixteen years, DoD has transferred over $5.1 billion worth of military equipment to local police departments. The Department of Homeland Security invites police departments to apply for grants to purchase advanced tactical hardware, ostensibly for countering terrorist threats. Missouri alone has received nearly $70 million from the DHS in the thirteen years since 9/11.
The St. Louis Police acquired their explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) robot for their bomb squad in February 2013. The exact model of the unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) has not been released. Such robots are increasingly common in police departments large and small. These unarmed machines, which are equipped with lasers, sensors and cameras, cost between $10,000 and $150,000. A popular model among police departments is the Andros F6-A, which is made by Remotec, a subsidiary of defense contractor Northrop Grumman. The demand for UGVs skyrocketed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where American infantry forces were racked by roadside bombs. Companies like QinetiQ and iRobot each developed a number of robots specializing in ordnance disposal for the military.
But these bomb disposal robots aren’t the only unmanned machines coming back from the wars to find new homes in the U.S. Robots like the small Throwbot XT, a reconnaissance UGV, appears to be marketed just as much to police as it is to the military. A number of police and sheriff departments are also looking to acquire aerial drones. In March 2013, Sam Dotson, the chief of police in the city of St. Louis, Missouri, lobbied the Federal Aviation Administration to allow his department to fly drones. In October 2013, Dotson reiterated his intention to fly drones that would be linked to a “real-time information center,” where officers would monitor the city from the air. In the months since, however, seemingly little progress has been made on the project.
It isn’t just large urban police forces that are acquiring this equipment. In 2011, police in Tupelo, Mississippi acquired an Andros F6-A with funds from the Department of Homeland Security. They say they use it to respond to three to four emergency calls each year (the town has a population of 35,490). In Carbondale, Illinois (population 26,241), the bomb squad bought, also with DHS funds, an F6-A in 2009; it responds to five to six calls each year. These robots aren’t always put to use inspecting suspicious packages. In January, police in Nampa, Idaho (population 83,930), employed a robot to encourage a suspect to leave his hotel room.
Other unmanned systems, like the K5 Autonomous Data Machine from Silicon Valley-based Knightscope, are more advanced than anything on the street today, though they are soon to be on their way to departments around the country. The K5, a five-foot tall autonomous robot, is designed to move around a city collecting data that it feeds into algorithms. Knightscope argues that this machine can use the data to predict where crime will occur. “It can see, hear, feel, and smell and it will roam around autonomously 24/7,” said CEO William Santana Li in an interview with CNET. Desert Wolf, a South African company, sells an aerial drone that is equipped with four paintball barrels called the Skunk Riot Control Copter. Each of those barrels can fire up to 20 paintball or pepper spray bullets per second at protesters. In an interview with the BBC, Hannie Kieser, the managing director at Desert Wolf, said that some of their customers were “police units outside South Africa.”
Robots are a small part of several significant federal programs to arm police with military hardware that have existed in one form or another for over two decades. There are hundreds of participating police departments across the country, as well as a growing domestic robotics industry that is feeding the demand created by the anti-drug and anti-terror wars.