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RoboCop Revisited: How Automation Is Transforming Public Safety

From mobile robots to laser scanners, technology is making police officers safer and more effective.

Law enforcement technology may not have reached the point where officers are replaced by cyborgs (think RoboCop), but new automated devices and robots are making public safety efforts more efficient and significantly less dangerous.

According to experts, unmanned ground robots, 3-D technology and various scientific developments are slowly but steadily changing how police, tactical and rescue personnel spend their time and do their jobs.

Four-wheeled drones (that have more in common with Mars rovers than screenwriter Ed Neumeier’s RoboCop character) are increasingly being used to extend the eyes and ears of police and military personnel. A variety of companies are producing these robots, which are designed to keep people out of harm’s way.

For instance, a line of ground and maritime robots from iRobot, a robot designer and manufacturer, is focused on achieving mission objectives such as observation and investigation. The company’s small unmanned ground vehicles have been used by bomb squads and SWAT teams to gather information prior to raids. Knob Moses, head of iRobot’s Government and Industrial Robots Division and a retired Navy supply officer, said giving people the ability to diffuse bombs and investigate scenes with a remote presence that features audio and video feeds is a huge safety benefit. Whether it’s a hostage situation or a drug lab, the ability to see and hear what’s going on from a distance improves situational awareness and saves lives.

But Moses cautioned that robotics must improve before the devices can truly be a force multiplier. He explained that although iRobot’s machines can cut wires and lift certain items, the extent of that manipulation is less than that of a 7-year-old’s fingers, so the robots really can’t replace human hands for complex tasks. Current-generation robots also can’t right themselves if they tip over, he said, so a person would need to go and get the machine.

“What we really would like to be able to do is have a robot go into a building ... know there are stairs there and climb [them],” Moses said, adding that if a robot’s audio and visual signals are lost, he’d also like to see a machine be able to automatically return to the last place it had communications.

“In terms of enhancing what a law enforcement or military unit can do, [a robot] is definitely a good tool ... but you still really would not want to use it for more sensitive operations,” Moses admitted.


The 30-pound iRobot SUGV is a tactical mobile robot that gathers situational awareness data for soldiers and public safety officials in dangerous situations. Various payloads and sensors may be added to extend its usefulness. The robot is used for surveillance and reconnaissance, bomb disposal, checkpoint inspections and explosive detection. Environmental conditions aren’t much of a hindrance, as the SUGV is designed to operate on both rough terrain and city streets.

Automation is changing public safety in other ways too. Take the seemingly mundane task of verifying a person’s identity. Now fingerprints can be checked against law enforcement databases in 60 seconds on the roadside using mobile devices connected wirelessly to internal systems. This is replacing the time-consuming task of hauling suspects to a police station for a standard fingerprint check.

Although mobile fingerprint technology has been around for years, its use is now common in law enforcement, including the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) where officers utilize Blue Check fingerprinting devices as a part of their regular routine.
Blue Check may not be a “James Bond-type” futuristic tool, said LAPD Officer Steve Dolan, but it has significantly impacted officers’ jobs. “As you look at the technology, it is not just what kind of cool gadget it is,” Dolan said. “It is how efficient you can get workable data in a meaningful and timely manner to the officers, and this [fills that] gap.”

Mobile fingerprinting technology also helps with public relations: A routine traffic stop where there are questions about a person’s identity now doesn’t have to frustrate a citizen with a drive to the station, Dolan explained. “Now we can do it in just a couple of minutes, and the quality of contact between the officer and citizen is much better,” he said. “Therefore your experience with the police department is more favorable, regardless of whether you get a ticket or not.”

This field-based biometric technology can be viewed as a force multiplier, because it makes officers more efficient. In addition, the technology improves officer and public safety by letting officers understand who they’re dealing with in a timelier manner.

Other technologies also provide officers with more accurate information in a faster time frame. For instance, 3-D technology is making accident and homicide investigations more dynamic. Though not quite at the level seen on popular TV dramas like CSI, 3-D scanners enable law enforcement personnel to capture data from crime scenes and create a model that takes a judge or jury on a virtual walk-through of the event.

The Central Virginia Regional Crash Team — a multijurisdictional unit composed of law enforcement agencies in the city of Bedford, Bedford and Franklin counties, the towns of Vinton and Rocky Mount, as well as the Virginia State Police and National Park Service — received two Leica HDS4500 3-D scanners in August for use during investigations.

Capt. Jim Bennett of the Bedford Police Department said officers investigating a crash scene typically rely on tape measures and other equipment to draw two-dimensional diagrams and perform calculations to determine the various factors that led to the accident.

But 3-D scanner technology not only produces three-dimensional images, it creates those images much faster and with less manpower. For typical accident investigations, Bennett said six people are sent to the scene, but the 3-D scanners’ efficiency means that a crew of two do the same job.

“While it takes us hours or days to take these measurements, [the 3-D scanner] can do a 360-degree scan of a scene in six to eight minutes,” he said.

The process is not much different than what’s seen in a science fiction movie, where a complete room scan is done by a laser, Bennett said. The scanner measures the entire scene in eighth-inch increments. Those data points are downloaded onto a computer, where software uses them to reconstruct a 3-D model of the scene.

In addition to providing the model for investigators and people in a courtroom to visualize certain elements during a trial, the technology lets officers respond in court if their version of an incident is challenged by opposing legal counsel.

If there was a murder scene and the suspect was 6 feet 4 inches tall, and a defense attorney offered an unknown suspect of differing height and build as the murderer, Bennett said officers can input that data into the 3-D model and use the information to confirm or deny the plausibility.

“You can go back and re-create [scenarios] and come up with a truer picture of what may have happened, or you can dispel a theory,” Bennett said.

While many people associate technology with gadgets, Dustin Haisler, director of government innovation for Spigit, a software developer that focuses on idea collection and management, said crowdsourcing and collaboration techniques can make law enforcement more effective.

Software programs that collect the thoughts and ideas of officers from a “bottom-up” perspective, he says, help break down some of the barriers associated with strict hierarchies in law enforcement agencies. Haisler — former assistant city manager of Manor, Texas — made extensive use of crowdsourcing during his public-sector career.

Spigit’s solutions provide a Web-based platform where chatter from officers — in the form of ideas or suggestions — can be captured and then voted up or down by the officers’ peers and others. Haisler explained that the process is completely transparent so that a chief or decision-maker can see the idea, see how well it may be accepted, and ultimately make a decision on the idea.

“We are using behavioral science to make this process fun in an agency, but also to allow this chain of command that is traditionally within an agency to really be broken down,” Haisler said. “We operate on the premise of allowing anyone, whatever their role is within an agency, to submit their recommendations or to help validate and comment.” This way, he says, it grows through this process into something more actionable.

The open data movement being embraced globally is another advancement Haisler sees growing in importance for law enforcement agencies. While there are countless streams of data being compiled by databases and published online, Haisler said he believes citizens and police officers adding “contextual intelligence” to the data will add value to it and help investigators solve complex crimes.

Haisler also said most police officers serving a community know where crime hot spots are, but interactive use of open data might solve the deeper questions about the root cause of some crimes.

“It is probably going to be driven by allowing even citizens to look at open crime maps and use them like a virtual bulletin board,” he said. “[Right now], they can see it, but they can’t say, ‘Here is a piece of information about it or something you need to know.’ Allowing that information to get back to officers can help them better do their jobs.”

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.