Saturday, May 18, 2024

Many Fear Spot, a Robo-Dog Cop, as Industry Embraces the Canine Droid

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The prospect of robotic dogs in police departments is stoking fears of aggressive policing, public surveillance, as well as dystopian descent into autonomous weapons and government overreach. The Los Angeles City Council Public Safety Committee recently approved a proposal from the Los Angeles Police Department to accept the donation of a “Quadruped Unmanned Ground Vehicle,” produced by the Massachusetts-based robotics company, Boston Dynamics.

Although these expensive four-legged robots aren’t specifically designed for tactical use (and are deployed in many other industries), state government agencies have used them in various capacities from SWAT teams to fire departments, invoking eerie images of a world patrolled by full-metal robo-cop dogs.

Spot, as it’s been named, was recently donated to the LAPD for a whopping $277,917.80 by the Los Angeles Police Foundation. The LAPF fundraises and donates new technology and weapons to the LAPD.

For obvious reasons, people are concerned—especially if these robots were to be weaponized, something that Boston Dynamics has specifically pledged not to do in an open letter also signed by five other robotics companies.

In its early days, Boston Dynamics received a large part of its funding from the U.S. Military, which believed that robotic pack mules would be ideal for infantry use, the Verge reported. After it was determined that the machines were too noisy, the company shifted to commercial sales and has changed ownership several times in the past decade. In 2013, Google purchased it and then sold it in 2017 to the Japanese company Softbank. In late 2020, the Hyundai Motor Group purchased a controlling interest.

Over the years, Boston Dynamics has shifted gears from military robo-mules to the almost-cute, quad-legged, Spot, and product such as their humanoid, Atlas. They’ve done a fabulous job showcasing their more creative uses on social media. In one video, three Spots decorated a Christmas tree, in another, Spot is dancing with two Atlases, and, in a third, Atlas demonstrates its parkour skills.

The technology is impressive, to say the least, and the concerns for police use are valid, but they also distract from the very real ways that Spot and other types of robots have impacted society by providing support and safety.

Capable of moving at 3.5 mph—the average human walking speed—Spot stands two feet tall and has enough energy for 90 minutes of (play) runtime. Its five cameras provide it with a 360-degree optical view and it’s capable of moving over a variety of surfaces and objects. It can be programmed to repeat autonomous missions, power-up work equipment, and be controlled from afar.

Tactical uses include “hazardous gas detection, unexploded ordnance inspection, suspicious package investigation, search and rescue, subterranean or confined space exploration, and structural assessments following fires, disaster events, and other hazards,” a spokesperson from Boston Dynamics told LAMag. In Massachusetts, Spot is used to “help secure areas where large crowds are expected, like ahead of Boston’s Independence Day Celebration.”

Spot doesn’t come cheap. The LAPD’s unit costs the same as the starting salaries of three full-time police officers. It’s been reported that Spot starts at $74,500 but according to the price sheet provided by the LAPD to City Council, it goes up dramatically with add-ons and accessory costs. The base unit including extra batteries, a charger, a control tablet, and a case was $99,200. A robotic arm—used for opening doors or grabbing objects—was another $64,000. A service plan ($24,800) a top-mounted camera ($38,950), and an advanced radio system from the company FLYMOTION ($37,979) were also included. Taxes, delivery fees, and a $6,494 training course brought the total to $272,917.80.

Beyond Spot’s use in government agencies, it’s been deployed in industries including construction, oil and gas, mining, and pharmaceuticals. The Kidd Creek Mine in Canada—one of the deepest mines in the world—used Spot to inspect potential hazards; a converter station owned by National Grid has used it to conduct inspections; and NASA JPL used it to explore caves similar to those we may find on Mars.

The current outcry, however, is about how robots will be used within the LAPD after other cities saw a similar backlash and eventually withdrew their plans. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors had originally voted to approve the use of lethal force for robots but quickly backtracked a week later. The New York City Police Department—which has a larger budget than other nation’s entire militaries—ended its plans for Spot after it was seen in a residential building in Manhattan and backlash ensued, the New York Times reported

In 2021, only four units were being used by police departments: the NYPD, the Massachusetts State Police, a department in the Netherlands, and the Honolulu Police Department, the Times reported. The HPD was criticized for spending $150,000 of federal CARES funds to deploy the robot at a homeless shelter to check temperatures, Hawaii News Now reported.

Spot’s use in government agencies does appear to be growing, though. In a recent email, a spokesperson for Boston Dynamics shared that SWAT teams in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Houston, Texas, as well as, departments in Western Australia and Germany have used Spot in 2022. The New York City Fire Department purchased two units for search and rescue missions.

For the LAPD, passing the Public Safety Committee was step one, the next being the approval by the entire City Council—but newly elected members provide a potentially staunch rebuttal of Spot’s incorporation. Councilman Hugo Soto-Martinez has already rejected the use of Spot, being the only member in the committee to vote no. “This surveillance isn’t just disturbing, it’s deeply unjust. Especially when talking about low-income tenants and communities of color,” he tweeted. “I’ll be voting NO on Robot Dogs.”

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