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High School Builds Robot for Florida Police Department

PDbot will assist police operations by delivering “throw phones” during hostage situations and providing live video feeds of incidents.

by / April 8, 2011

The newest member of the Rockledge, Fla., Police Department is two feet tall and weighs 100 pounds, but it’s not police dog — it’s a robot named PDbot.

Nearly a year and a half ago, the Police Department tapped Rockledge High School to build a robot for assisting with police operations. The robot has since been completed and has been with the department for nearly a week. PDbot will soon be working with officers in training exercises to eventually be taken out into the field.

The idea to acquire a robot or similar mechanism came to be when the department started discussing new ideas to deliver “throw phones” in hostage situations, said Chris Cochie, an investigator for the department. A throw phone is a phone that’s delivered to a hostage-taker to create a line of communication with police during negotiations. 

“I thought it’d be cool if we had some sort of remote control car or vehicle or something that we could attach the throw phone to, to drive it up to the bad guy,” Cochie said.

The Police Department decided to approach the local high school about building and donating a robot to the department since it didn’t have the budget to purchase one. Rockledge High School is known to have one of the best robotics teams in the country, so approaching it was the smart choice, Cochie said.

During one of the high school’s football games, the department’s former SWAT commander approached Marian Passmore, a math and science teacher (and current instructor for the school’s robotics team), about the idea, which she agreed to.

Students from nearby Cocoa Beach High School joined the team as well.

For a year and a half, a subgroup of the robotics team — 14 students total during the course of the project — prototyped, designed and built PDbot, Passmore said. Once completed, the robot was not only able to deliver a throw phone, but also can deliver medical supplies or other items during a crisis situation. In addition, the robot can launch smoke bombs, has video capability for drug surveillance, infrared for nighttime operations as well as other features. PDbot can be remotely operated up to 500 feet from the driver’s station.

During a training exercise with the department’s SWAT team, to test the robot’s strength, an officer laid on the ground and had the robot push and pull him in the grass. Passmore said another officer commented that the robot’s pulling capability would be beneficial if an officer was injured during police operations because PDbot could pull him or her to a safe location.

Because the Police Department lacked the funds to purchase a robot, obtaining money to build PDbot was the robotics team’s responsibility. Every year the team raises between $45,000 and $50,000 through fundraising, educational outreach grants and from local businesses, and the team put $14,000 toward the PDbot project, Passmore said.

While the students were the robot’s main designers and builders, mentors from NASA and the Kennedy Space Center also came on board to help the students complete the project, Passmore said.

“The biggest challenge is that they are kids. People have to remember that they are students, they’re not engineers when they’re in high school,” Passmore said, later adding, “But they’ve had some experiences that maybe a normal science class that you walk into, those kids wouldn’t have had.”

According to a press release, the next version of PDbot is under development and will add full duplex audio, an attachment to break through glass doors, a taser and more.

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Sarah Rich

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. She wrote for for Government Technology magazine from 2010 through 2013.

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