Robot Used By Dallas Police To Kill Gunman Sparks Debate

Jul 11, 2016
Originally published on July 11, 2016 6:38 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

When Dallas Police Chief David Brown announced last week that Micah Johnson was killed by a robot with a bomb, it raised a lot of questions that we've been trying to answer. What kind of robot was it? Has it been used this way before, and is this use ethical? Well, new information today is filling in some of the blanks. Lauren Silverman of member station KERA has more.

LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: After hours of negotiating with Micah Johnson while he was holed up in the parking garage of El Centro Community College, Dallas Police Chief David Brown said, enough.

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CHIEF DAVID BROWN: I knew that at least two had been killed, and we knew through negotiation this was a suspect because he was asking us how many did he get. And he was telling us how many more he wanted to kill.

SILVERMAN: Brown asked his team to come up with an idea, so they attached a pound of C-4 explosive to their bomb disposal robot and detonated it within a few feet of where Johnson was hiding.

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BROWN: This wasn't a ethical dilemma for me. I'd do it again to save our officers' lives.

SILVERMAN: The heavy duty, mostly metal robot is about the size of a lawnmower with hefty treaded wheels, cameras and a large extendable arm. It's made by Northrop Grumman's subsidiary Remotec. To understand this robot, it helps to know some basics. Howard Chizeck, an engineer at the University of Washington, says there are three types of robots - first the industrial ones you might see on an assembly line maybe putting together a car.

HOWARD CHIZECK: They basically are tools that do exactly what they're told to do.

SILVERMAN: Then there are autonomous robots. These are the ones that tend to get the most attention, at least in Hollywood. Think "RoboCop" or "Terminator." Finally, Chizeck says, there are telerobots. That's what the Dallas police used.

CHIZECK: Things like bomb-defusing robots or drones, search and rescue robots where there's a human in the loop.

SILVERMAN: These are all over the place. Think of drones flying over Pakistan or robots that do microsurgery. Tim Dees is a former police officer and tech writer for policeone.com. He says telerobots are a common tool among large law enforcement agencies - like the Swiss Army Knife of robots.

TIM DEES: I've seen them with shotguns, with water cannons, with arms that are articulate enough to open a package. So they're used for all sorts of things.

SILVERMAN: Dees says bomb disposal units do routinely carry explosives with them.

DEES: Unlike on TV where you have some sweaty guy trying to decide whether to cut the red wire or the green wire, the more common way is to what the bomb guys will call render it safe, which usually means blowing it up right where it is.

SILVERMAN: Arming a robot with an explosive to blow up a person, as was the case in Dallas - that was a first. Still, according to Michael Horowitz, that doesn't make the device a killer robot exactly.

MICHAEL HOROWITZ: A killer robot would be something that was more autonomous, that was actually programmed and could do things on its own without human supervision.

SILVERMAN: Horowitz is a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He says some people wonder whether this type of remote technology might make police more likely to use lethal force since they're not directly in danger. Another question has to do with security. Engineer Howard Chizeck says there's a risk that the robot could be hacked.

CHIZECK: If somebody disrupts that information stream - right? - they could potentially take over and command my remote robot or just make it not work.

SILVERMAN: Chizeck says hacking probably isn't something we need to worry about unless police start using remotely controlled robots more often. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.