How robots are joining the police force

In light of the recent bombings in New York and New Jersey, science correspondent Miles O'Brien takes a look at a new technology that is increasingly being used by law enforcement: bomb-disarming robots. Operated from a safe distance, these robots can blast through car windows and even kill, raising ethical issues about how they should be used.

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    But first: In the aftermath of this week's bombings in New York and New Jersey, science correspondent Miles O'Brien looks at the ways police departments are coming to rely on bomb-disarming robots.

    It's part of our weekly Leading Edge series.

  • MAN:

    Everybody, get off the street!


    As the pipe and pressure cooker bomb plot unfolded and unraveled in New York and New Jersey, police deployed some remotely operated tools aimed at saving the lives of civilians and bomb squad technicians alike.

    In New Jersey, a reminder of the hair-trigger risk they face in harm's way.

    At NYPD bomb squad headquarters on City Island a few years ago, Lieutenant Mark Torre gave me a demo using the same robot, the Remotec ANDROS F6A, built by Northrop Grumman.

  • LT. MARK TORRE, NYPD Bomb Squad:

    Its primary mission is to put distance between our technicians and something of a hazardous nature, because distance in this business is always your friend.


    In this scenario, it is believed there may be an explosive in this car. And it is much more than a hypothetical. It's what happened in Times Square on May 1 of 2010.

    A street vendor discovered a smoldering, abandoned car filled with propane tanks, fertilizer, gasoline and firecrackers. It was a Saturday evening, the busiest time of the week, in one of the busiest, and most iconic, intersections in the world.

  • MITCH SILBER, Terrorism Analyst:

    Between the scenery, the symbolism, the congestion and it being be just media central for New York City, you can't get much better of a background for terrorists.


    Mitch Silber was NYPD's director of intelligence analysis at the time. He shudders to think what would have happened if the car bomb, built by Pakistani American Faisal Shahzad, had not been a dud.


    It would ripped the car in half, and this is a very busy intersection. Depending on the congestion of people right around the car, it would certainly kill people, injured and maimed many others. And it would have been the first big terrorist attack in New York City since 9/11, since 2001, nine years earlier.


    So, if he had just been a better bomb-maker, it would have been a horrible event?




    In fact, a few months later, the FBI built an identical car bomb and detonated it to see what could have happened, a scary thought.

    Instead, in Times Square, the NYPD bomb squad deployed its ANDROS robot and did pretty much what you are about to see.

  • DET. JAMES SCHUTTA, New York Police Department:

    Bomb squad is called. A perimeter is set up, and we are now going to use this robot to approach this vehicle and take a look at what's inside.


    Detective James Schutta operated the robot from a safe distance.


    We are not in sight of the vehicle.

    The key to successful robot operation is that he can do the entire job without ever seeing what the robot is actually doing. It's all done remotely via the cameras.


    But this robot is more than just a remote-controlled eye. It is able to get inside the car to take a closer look. The robot fired a .12-gauge blast through both windows.


    And that's what we call a perfect shot. It is sort of just a game of manipulation now, where he's going to maneuver the robot until we get a better view of what's inside. He took out both windows. Now we have an opportunity to look in both sides.


    In this scenario, the robot discovered there is indeed a bomb inside the car.


    We always try to put ourselves in the mind of the bomber. We want to stay one step ahead of them. The bomb itself really has sort of remained the same throughout the years. It's what sets them off that sets them apart. The more sophisticated triggering systems, they're difficult to defeat, and that's a concern to us, but, again, we always try to stay one step ahead.


    Remotec robots are also used by the military to defuse bombs, but also to kill insurgents hiding in alleys.

    In Dallas in July, that same tactic was used by police. A robot blew up a cornered sniper who had taken aim at white police officers, killing five of them. It was unprecedented in U.S. law enforcement history.

    But Dallas Police Chief David Brown said he had no regrets.

    DAVID BROWN, Chief , Dallas Police Department: I would do it again. I would do it again to save our officers' lives.


    But experts who track the evolution of technology used by the military and law enforcement worry an important threshold has been crossed, without a national debate on the ethical issues.

  • PETER W. SINGER, New America:

    The question is, is it going to be viewed as an anomaly, or is it a precedent that will be followed more widely?


    Peter W. Singer is an expert on unmanned and robotic weapons systems. He says it is inevitable local police will increase their use of robots.


    The question is not, are police going to be using robotic systems? It's, how? In what manner? How will they be trained to use them? How will they be regulated? Will they be armed or not? If they're armed, will they be lethally armed or with non-lethal weapons?

    The issue has to involve not just the police, but also the populace, the people that are to be protected and served by the police and the tools, including the robotic ones, that they use.


    The devices used in New York, New Jersey and Dallas all still have human beings in the loop driving the robot, making the decisions.

    But as robots become more autonomous, defining some clear rules of engagement will become a more urgent concern for law enforcement and the public.

    Miles O'Brien, the "PBS NewsHour," New York.

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