A New Weapon for SWAT Teams: Bomb-Squad Robots
Police departments around the country are deploying robots to defuse bombs and handle standoffs—and they may be getting increasingly weaponized.
Sandia National Laboratories' Gemini-Scout. Photo by the author
At first glance, what happened to Stephen Fought doesn't seem that unusual by the standards of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Fought, who suffers from schizophrenia, locked himself in a motel room with a gun and refused to come out, so the Albuquerque Police Department sent a SWAT team to get him out. They eventually apprehended Fought, but he says he sustained serious injuries from beanbag rounds and bites from a police dog.
In a city made nationally famous by the shocking video of the police killing of a mentally ill homeless man in March 2014, Fought's case was just a blip in the local news cycle. But there was one aspect of the arrest that was bizarre even by the standards of Walter White's hometown: According to Fought, police confronted him with a Remotec ANDROS bomb-squad robot, using it to launch "chemical munitions" through the motel room window.
"They sent that robot over there, and I thought, 'Man, what is that?' You know?" Fought said in an interview. "They threw a grenade in there, it started smoking, I threw it back out. They threw another one, I threw it back out. They broke out the window with a, some kind of a ball or something. Some kind of a shell."
In the depths of schizophrenic delusions, and terrified by the military tactics and equipment employed by the SWAT Team, Fought struggled to keep his cool.
"I mean, even in the hospital, I went to the hospital, I thought they were gonna kill me at the hospital," he said.
It's not the only time Albuquerque's bomb-squad robot has been deployed by the SWAT team, either. Using information from the police department's publicly available monthly reports, VICE identified at least seven instances of the bomb-squad robot being used by Albuquerque's SWAT team. In one case, the robot was used to reach in a suicidal man's bedroom window and pull a blanket off of him because the SWAT team was wondering whether he had a gun or not. (Turns out he didn't.)
Albuquerque Police Department spokesman Tanner Tixier refused to answer any questions, instructing me to instead file a public-records request with the department, which is outstanding. (The department had put nearly half of the public records staff on leave right before that conversation last month.)
The robot takeover spreads far beyond Albuquerque, and their use is swiftly becoming commonplace among SWAT teams nationally. The robots, originally designed for use as bomb-disposal tools, are also becoming increasingly weaponized. Northrop Grumman's Remotec ANDROS F6 robot, for example, can be outfitted with an X-ray to look for explosive material, or a "disruptor" to safely detonate bombs. But it can also be fitted with a pepper-spray dispenser, a tear-gas launcher, and even a shotgun.
Northrop Grumman spokeswoman Janis Lamar told me in an email that over 90 percent of police bomb squads use Remotec robots, with over 1,100 of them deployed across the US. And according to Lamar, the LAPD owns a "heavy-duty" unmanned vehicle, an armored cross between a bulldozer and a crane known as the BatCat. A video demonstration on Northrop Grumman's website shows the BatCat lifting a van and then tearing down the wall of a building.
Now a new generation of robots is on the way, with some of the work being done in Albuquerque. The federally-funded Sandia National Laboratories, located just outside the city limits, is hard at work on some of the most cutting-edge robotics programs in the nation. During a tour of Sandia's facilities, I was shown two robots under development, the Gemini-Scout and the STEPPR. The Gemini-Scout is a three-foot-high robot on tank treads, designed to enter mines on search-and-rescue missions. The STEPPR is a bipedal robot also intended for disaster response which has been under development since Japan's Fukushima disaster in 2011.
Although Sandia is not developing the robots for police or military use, they could certainly be modified by police departments after the fact.
"As the technology evolves, the capability will be there," said Steve Buerger, a principal member of Sandia's R&D staff working on the STEPPR. "There's obviously a lot of uses for these technologies and a lot of issues to work through in terms of the best way to use them. But I think there are some very positive uses like emergency response or explosive ordinance disposal."
Still, it'll be a long time before a walking robocop knocks on your door, according to Buerger.
"The system's like this: It's taking a few steps and trying not to fall," he said. "The technology really has a long way to go before it's useful in a lot of the application spaces that might require a more robust system."
Jake Deuel, Sandia's Robotic and Security Systems manager, said robots aren't usually developed with local police forces in mind, but that may change.
"Typically, they don't have the resources to be able to fund research at a lab," he said. "But now with like the Department of Homeland Security, there's ways that if your local police department said they really need something through DHS or the Science and Technology Department, there's ways they could make requests that, 'We need a robot to be able to do this.'"
Indeed, the expanded use of robots seems to track with a general trend of federally supported police militarization. Through initiatives like the Pentagon's 1033 program, the military has been transferring war gear to civilian police departments in the US. According to the ACLU, close to 500 bomb-disposal robots have been transferred to police departments through the program. (It's worth noting that President Obama this week announced plans to rein in federal militarization of local police, at least in the case of some of the scariest devices, like grenade launchers.)
ACLU Legislative Council Kanya Bennett told VICE that the Department of Defense claims all weaponry is removed from the robots before they are transferred to local police departments, but there's no reason the departments can't purchase the weaponry from Northrop Grumman or another supplier and attach it themselves.
"We have law enforcement receiving all kinds of military weapons, all kinds of military equipment that it has no idea what to do with. And then kind of configures for its own purposes," she said. "We certainly believe that some of this equipment should not be in the hands of state and locals to begin with, so that's a problem in itself."
Bennett said the use of robots raises serious concerns, as it removes officers and departments even further from life-or-death decisions that impact community members.
"We're having a difficult time holding our traditional—our human—police officers accountable in recent months," she said. "So I'm certainly concerned with introducing additional technology where there's even less accountability."
Stanford Law professor and police-militarization expert David Sklansky said that while there are legitimate uses for robots in policing, there are also plenty of legit concerns.
"If you have an officer on the phone and you have a probe that's going in to make sure that things are safe, there are gonna be situations where I think that's appropriate," he said. "Now, if you start putting weapons on the machines, that raises the stakes dramatically... Weapons are dangerous enough in human hands. When you start talking about operating them remotely, you create, obviously, new possibilities for mistakes and accidents."
And mistakes certainly do happen. In Tennessee several years ago, a police robot accidentally burned down a man's home.
The challenge for law enforcement and police reformers, then, will be to balance what seems like a pretty obvious need for modern tools with what has become an intense national conversation about militarized policing in America.
Andrew Beale is an independent journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He's reported from Palestine, Mexico, and Turkey for VICE, Al Jazeera, Alternet, and other outlets run by lefties and weirdos.