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Despite pushback from the community, cops in Honolulu are using a $150,000 robot dog to take the temperatures of homeless people. According to a training document and deployment log obtained via a records request, Boston Dynamics’ dog-like Spot robot has largely been doing what HPD promised it would—the noble work of an $11 thermometer.
Honolulu’s police department first drew national media attention when Civil Beat reported it had spent $150,045 in federal funds earmarked for pandemic relief on Spot. At a presentation to city council last year, Honolulu PD explained that Spot would be used to patrol the Keehi Lagoon Beach Park homeless encampment in the city and, more specifically, would be used to take the temperatures of unhoused people living in encampments as an initial COVID-19 screening.This means that people living in the encampment would have regular initial screenings not with a human but with a dog-shaped robot under the guise of keeping cops safe from homeless people who potentially had COVID-19. “As far as law enforcement goes, I would be so bold to say it’s the most innovative program in the nation,” officer Mike Lambert of the Honolulu PD said during the city council meeting. “And during the pandemic, no one has ever heard of another law enforcement agency trying to provide shelter and overnight services for the unsheltered.”In the months since that initial city council meeting, Spot usage logs obtained by Motherboard using a public records request shows that Spot is indeed regularly being deployed on “temperature” duty and is also often being used on something noted as “dinner” duty. Honolulu PD did not respond to a request for comment.
According to Lambert’s presentation, the $150,000 robot could potentially save the police department thousands of dollars a day. His 90-day estimate of cost savings put the number somewhere between $117,000 and $242,760. He based this number, seemingly, on what he would have to pay an officer to take the temperatures and also built in an estimate of what he’d have to pay an officer to quarantine for 14 days should they be exposed to COVID while taking temperatures.According to activity logs from September, October, and November of 2021, Spot occasionally lost signal and couldn’t be deployed. Some days it wouldn’t deploy with only the word “weather” written in the notes column (Motherboard checked the weather in Honolulu on these days and it was raining, though it rains in Honolulu most days.)
“Regarding the question about rain, SPOT has an IP54 rating for water ingress,” a Boston Dynamics spokesperson told Motherboard. The second number in the IP rating is its resistance to water on a 1 to 9 scale. Spot would probably be fine in a light drizzle but struggle with heavy rain.This program, notably, is about taking services that were previously administered to vulnerable populations by humans and replacing that human interaction with interaction with a robot dog that has also been studied for use by militaries. It also raises the question: What will SPOT be doing if the pandemic winds down? Motherboard asked for clarification and training documents related to SPOT in July of 2021. Training documentation drafted by HPD in September 2021, a full two months after Motherboard asked if such documentation even existed, holds ambiguous clues to the robot dog’s future.“Requests to use the SPOT robot for tactical operations is not [sic] be authorized, without appropriate direction from the element commander,” the documents said. “The SPOT robot is not to be weaponized or used to intimidate or harm any individuals.”
However, things could change. “In the future, at the completion of the pandemic and/or CARES Act guidelines, the SPOT robot may be utilized for other duties, as authorized by the element commander or designee,” the documents said. Historically, police will find a use for the technology they have, whether it’s necessary or not. We’ve seen this with tanks and other military surplus equipment that has trickled down to departments around the country. Don’t be surprised if we see it with Spot, too.