University of Alabama develops robot to help police communicate

The robot, which is still in an early stage of development, features a video display screen, microphones and a camera


By Gary Cosby Jr.
The Tuscaloosa News, Ala.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — An initiative between the University of Alabama and the Tuscaloosa Police Department could put communications-oriented robots in patrol cars in the near future.

The University of Alabama mechanical engineering department, robotics department, and communications department are working with local law enforcement to create an inexpensive, easily deployable robot aimed at helping make interactions between officers and the public safer.

UA showcased their work Friday morning, showing off the prototype robots and demonstrating the robots' uses to officers.

"The majority of law enforcement robots are utilized for tactical purposes," said Darrin Griffin, associate professor of communication studies. "Our team saw a niche in an area that needed improvement, which was to utilize communication either between two law enforcement officers or between a law enforcement officer and a citizen, so our project is aimed at utilizing robotics as a medium of communication to improve situations where human-to-human contact could be dangerous or is not achievable."

Communication is a critical element in law enforcement, Lt. Lachlan Chronister said.

"Communication is the foundation of what we do. People think of 'protect and serve' and they think we are out there to put people in jail, but its all about communication. It's how do we talk to people and how do we improve the ways we talk to people," Chronister said.

The UA team began developing the robots as a means of making communication between police officers and suspects or person in the public safer for both parties. The robot could be deployed when direct communication would be dangerous or impossible. The devices, which are in early stage development, are about 2 feet tall and incorporate microphones, video cameras and a video display screen. The hope is to make communications more personal and safer.

"If you've ever called someone you've never seen before, it is usually a very cold call. There is not a whole lot of back-and-forth because you don't know that person," Chronister said. "The second you can see somebody, that you can put a human face to a voice, that immediately can humanize that person and all of sudden you have new relationship started. It's the ability to be able to see somebody.

"We hold a lot of value in being able to observe someone's facial features, the way somebody looks at you. This gives that next step in doing that with remote level communication," he said.

An officer can operate the robotic unit using something similar to a video game controller. The officer can see the person through an on-board camera, while the person being contacted can see the officer through a video screen and can be heard through a microphone, allowing direct visual and audio communication.

"I think there are a lot of different opportunities to improve communication, not only human perception, but also awareness and cataloging events through cameras, using different technologies to understand emotions and see movements," Griffin said. "When people are in high-intensity situations, a lot of times they will have tunnel vision and their perceptions will be reduced to something that is right in front of them. Having a robot in conjunction with an officer opens up opportunities for more information processing and accurate reactions to situations."

One of the goals of the UA program is to get robots into an affordable price range so they are easily accessible to officers in the field. Nader Jalili, head of the UA department of mechanical engineering, said typical law enforcement robots cost between $200,000 and $300,000. UA hopes to bring that cost down to the $2,000 to $3,000 range.

[READ: How to buy tactical robots]

Jalili said the university is partnering with Tuscaloosa Police, Oxford Police and Jacksonville Police as they develop the robots. Officers are providing feedback to the designers to improve the robot's functionality in the field.

"I think there was a shooting example that motivated us to create a robot that would be more friendly than be more aggressive and offensive. Our motivation was to create a more defensive and communicative robot," Jalili said.

The program is still in its infancy and will be several years in development. The university is currently working under a grant from the National Science Foundation and will be expanding their grant application to give them multiple years of research funding.

"We are five to 10 years ahead of our time in developing these things and trying to understand the goals of law enforcement and how we can better achieve those goals. We are in the preliminary, foundational stages. We hope in several years this could be something that would be more achievable," Griffin said.

(c)2021 The Tuscaloosa News, Ala.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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