Is this technological tool the next force multiplier?

One of the greatest concerns facing officers across the country today is the threat of a meth lab. Meth labs produce byproducts and gases that endanger life and property, and law enforcement officers as first responders must enter these threatening environments in the course of doing their jobs.

When a meth lab is suspected, officers first must determine if a lab truly exists. If so, when officers execute a warrant they may need to wear one-use sealed contamination suits if the lab is thought to be in a dangerous cooking mode where cyanide gas might be produced. These suits are relatively expensive but also cannot be guaranteed to be tear-free once having been put on. This, in turn, creates a potentially fatal safety hazard for an officer.

But imagine if "thinking" robots made the first entry into these hazardous surroundings, while responding officers watched their activities from a safe distance away.

By using autonomous robots, law enforcement could gather intelligence in a stakeout and have the robots enter the area before sending in a SWAT team.

In a stakeout, robots could covertly observe a building or situation to watch for anomalies, suspicious activities or even sense heat patterns. An unattended robot could inform a base operation when an exceptional condition occurred. Or, when used in conjunction with an officer, the robot would be able to continue an observation when the officer was off-post or occupied with something else.

The robot, or a team of robots, also could be commanded to investigate the suspected meth lab. The robots, operating independently but as a networked team, would then approach the lab with each robot sharing its "viewpoint" with the other robots as well as any observing officers.

By sharing information, the robots multiply the effect of being a team, enabling a more effective and exhaustive investigation in a shorter period of time. Because these robots think for themselves, human manpower can be devoted to maintaining overall situational awareness, which improves safety for the entire team.

As robots enter a lab's vicinity, they use sensor arrays to determine if any humans are present, and whether the individual's are armed or extremely agitated, and potentially dangerous. The robots also can determine whether chemical or dry cooking is taking place, and if poisonous gases are present in the air. The robots use efficient algorithms to search each room — having a plan for every type of contingency. In some situations, they would be programmed to alert and acquire the assistance of officers.

This scenario illustrates the improvements in safety and productivity the law enforcement team may experience by deploying "thinking" robots. In effect, the robots are really a force addition, enhancing on-ground capabilities without requiring human operators.

Autonomous robotics
What is autonomous robotics anyway?

The most succinct way to describe it is to compare autonomous robots to remotely operated ones, such as an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) robot. With an EOD device, the officer controls the robot's movement through macro-type control bundling that allows sequences of control options to be invoked. With autonomous robotics, however, the robots are commanded to do tasks but in general, are not controlled while performing the task. An officer might be able to override an autonomous robot's actions, but in most cases, he would simply give the robot directions for it to execute autonomously.

Over the last 20 years, the area of robotics has evolved through three generations of capabilities as shown in Table 1 on Page 70. Each generation of "intellect" was focused on some type of task or groups of tasks with a typical example shown. EOD, for instance, is basically a hazmat-type task and only requires sensor feedback, which is the hallmark of remote-operated designs. The current generation of law enforcement robots, including EOD robots, is second-generation units.

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