Third-generation, or autonomous robots, recently became available. These systems are capable of making real-life decisions and acting upon them. Near-term uses for these devices would be in the military but since police work is very similar in nature, the products will soon find their way to the law enforcement market. Currently, there is significant military-funded research into autonomous robotics that is related to police work. Thus, it is time for law enforcement to seriously discuss the initial range of applications for autonomous police robots.
The "thinking" robot's role
Autonomous police robots have always been thought of as, first and foremost, improving officer/community safety while enhancing operational efficiency. However, any positive or negative impact this technology would have on law enforcement is more driven by the roles the robot would fulfill within police work. After having already made use of EOD robots and other technology, it becomes clear this technology fits well within two restricted roles in regards to autonomy of operation: customer/citizen information service and officer assistant.
An autonomous robot acting as a mobile citizen information center would link the customer to a second-level human help desk. This beneficial public service application would also help save patrol manpower.
If an autonomous robot is used for police tasks then it must act as an assistant to the officer. Consider how K-9s, for instance, are used within police work today. Autonomous robots will in many ways be treated similar to police K-9s, thus leading to the designation as an assistant. In a broader sense though, the robot is a more versatile assistant able to perform "smart on-demand" laboratory analysis, intelligently interact with information sources on behalf of the officer, record a permanent yet easily retrieved history of events, etc.
This latter role as assistant does have a substantial impact on the autonomous robot's daily operational mobility requirements. The robotic assistant would need to be available to the officer nearly all the time and be mobile outside of a vehicle in order to be truly beneficial. In dismounted mode, the robot will need to be capable of traversing typical urban or rural environments. Initially the frequency and range of environment may be mitigated since mobile locomotion and power considerations constrain the types of missions where the robot will be effective. In general, the duration of a dismounted activity will be from 30 minutes to 4 hours, depending on the mission, before a partial recharge would be necessary.
The role as assistant also carries significant legal impacts and limitations that must be understood and accounted for. An autonomous robot could create a substantial amount of inadvertent damage if allowed to roam freely in all situations as all contingencies cannot be accounted for. In addition, because the robot is akin to a portable laboratory it will held to the precedents already in place for breathalyzers and other similar devices. For this reason, using robots at a traffic stop for drug or alcohol detection does not appear to be that useful due to legal restraints. Here, a robot cannot be used unless probable cause is evident. The same would be true of using the robot to "see" through the car to detect weapons, as this too would be a violation of privacy laws.
Beefing up officer safety
Officer safety itself is an extremely important area for an autonomous robot application. A simple application is one of "calling home" when an officer is injured and providing up-to-the-moment status on the officer and situation to linked teams. Some discussions have centered on using the robot to protect the fallen officer but concerns arise about how the device would handle a civilian trying to help the officer. How will the robot know the difference between someone wanting to help and someone trying to hurt?
Arming autonomous robots with lethal or less-lethal weapons, allowing them to use force or be allowed to move at-will could help protect the officer. However, it also could cause injury to someone or damage to property. These types of activities would be best left for the future after a good amount practical field use has occurred.
One of the most important applications for autonomous robots involves intelligence and information gathering, namely searching, scanning, detection, recording and surveillance. These capabilities are largely achievable in the near future.