The Early Chronicles of Spot, the Robot Police Dog

Spot, a robot dog produced by Boston Dynamics, has been employed by a few police departments over the last couple of years, raising the antennas of surveillance critics. Does Spot have a future in public safety?

Spot the Robot Police Dog
Image from Boston Dynamics
Police surveillance in the U.S. is a hot-button issue, thanks in part to the rise of drone technology among law enforcement during the pandemic last year. Just over a month ago, a robot dog, also known as Spot or “Digidog,” became part of the conversation about surveillance as the New York Police Department faced criticism for utilizing the machine.

By the end of April, the NYPD gave up Spot, which is made by Boston Dynamics.

While one might look at these events and conclude the dog got the axe due to public outcry, NYPD spokesperson Edward D. Riley told Government Technology via email in late April that Spot “is not a surveillance tool” and was being tested for a limited time.

“The robot is a piece of equipment the NYPD is leasing for the purposes of testing the robot in real world situations,” Riley wrote. “As the test is coming to a close, the robot will be returned and be evaluated against other remote access products based on cost and capability.”

Late last year, ABC7 New York indicated that Spot, which was leased to the NYPD for $94,000 according to multiple reports, had been used in October 2020 when a suspected shooter holed up in his Brooklyn home. The report also mentioned that Spot was able to carry food to five hostages in Queens during another mission.

“It is a device that can give police visualization in dangerous situations involving active shooter incidents, hostage situations and [rescue] operations where it might be too unstable or dangerous to send a first responder,” Riley said in his email. “It costs about half of what the traditional robots in use by the Bomb Squad or Emergency Service Unit have used since the ’70s cost.”

Although the NYPD has received most of the recent negative publicity surrounding Spot, at least two other law enforcement agencies have found potential use for the tech.

According to WBUR News, the Massachusetts State Police (MSP) was the first such agency to lease Spot. At the time of the WBUR report, which was published in November 2019, MSP had a three-month lease for the mechanical canine, which had been deployed “to provide troopers with images of suspicious devices or potentially hazardous locations, like where an armed suspect might be hiding.”

In an email to Government Technology, an MSP spokesperson said Spot had been used by the bomb squad, which falls under the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services (DFS). Jennifer Mieth, DFS public information officer, said on the phone that Spot’s “main use is to assess situations without putting people in harm’s way.” Mieth hasn’t responded to multiple requests for more details.

The Honolulu Police Department (HPD) is the other public safety agency that is known to have used Spot. HPD bought the Spot model last year with CARES Act dollars, according to an email from Michelle Yu, who works in the Media Liaison Office for HPD. Spot has assisted officers at Honolulu’s Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage (POST) site, which opened during April 2020.

“The site provides homeless individuals with basic shelter and social services navigation while they wait to move to traditional shelters, which are operating at reduced capacity due to COVID outbreaks and restrictions,” Yu wrote. “At POST, the robot is used for contactless temperature checks, client interviews and telemedicine appointments via tablet. If needed, it could also be used to deliver medicine and food to clients.”

Yu added that before Spot was acquired, officers had handled these duties while having “extended, face-to-face contact with clients, some of whom had tested positive for COVID.”

“Each time there was an actual or potential exposure, the officers and workers had to be tested and enter quarantine for two weeks or until cleared by a physician,” Yu continued. “SPOT reduced the risk of contracting and spreading COVID at the site for clients, officers and workers.”

Last month, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that HPD sees other potential missions for Spot, including emergency situations that might involve spillage or wreckage. Honolulu Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi agreed the robot will be of use for years.

“I’m quite sure this will have a useful life for quite some time,” Tsuneyoshi told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “And when none of us have to do temperature checks anymore no matter where we go, there will be something, I’m sure, that the technology will be useful for.”

Regardless of how police may have employed Spot thus far, Matthew Guariglia, policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, finds the increased usage of robots among law enforcement agencies concerning. He said departments are “acquiring as many toys as possible without a real mandate for when they would be used and how they would be used.”

Guariglia also stated that even if Spot hasn’t been used for surveillance yet, that doesn’t mean the dog would never be a part of any surveillance.

“[Police] usually claim to use them [robots] in a very specific situation that isn’t surveillance, and yet I think it would only be a matter of time before we see surveillance-equipped robots doing things like walking through protests,” he said.

Guariglia’s fear comes from evidence that police spy on citizens in multiple ways that people tend to be unaware of.

When asked about HPD’s pandemic-related use case for Spot, Guariglia admitted robots have “interesting potential for public health.” However, he would “vastly prefer if those robots were in the control of public health departments and not police departments.” He believes robots can create more of a chasm between citizens and police and can lead to unpredictable results if policies aren’t in place to restrict what police can do with the tech.

“Normalizing them in everyday aspects of policing invites us to begin to worry about what happens when someone begins to arm these robots,” he said. “What happens when they’re equipped with a taser or pepper spray or gas canisters, as is happening in some parts of the world?”

For its part, Boston Dynamics has stated it doesn’t want to see Spot equipped with weapons. Michael Perry, vice president of business development for Boston Dynamics, told WBUR that the company includes a clause in its lease agreements prohibiting organizations from weaponizing Spot.

“Part of our early evaluation process with customers is making sure that we’re on the same page for the usage of the robot,” Perry said. “So upfront, we’re very clear with our customers that we don’t want the robot being used in a way that can physically harm somebody.”

In the event that Spot is purchased, though, it is unclear how Boston Dynamics would prevent the purchasing organization, such as HPD, from doing what it wants with the robot, which is also used by private organizations like BP and Woodside.

Back in February, Boston Dynamics condemned an art project that strapped a paintball gun onto the back of Spot. According to the BBC, the group responsible for the art project believes the robot dog will be militarized.

Less than two months later, a report from The Verge revealed the army of France had deployed Spot in military exercises. Perry told The Verge that “we’re not clear on the exact scope of this engagement.”

From Guariglia’s perspective, companies just want their products bought by whomever.

“All of this stuff is created by companies, and companies want to maximize profit, and the best way to maximize profit is … to get it in as many countries as possible,” Guariglia said.
Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.