Policing in 2025: How robots will change SWAT, patrol

The effectiveness of robotics on the battlefield may ease the path for Americans to accept robotics as a tool for policing in the near future

By Gregory Mar, Police1 Contributor

For almost two centuries, weapons have been used for policing, with clubs, shields and edged weapons used well after the formation of the first Metropolitan Police Department in 1829. Over the years, the club was replaced with a baton. The firearm supplanted the baton. The most recent advancement in less-lethal weapon technology is the TASER, a CEW. With all these technological advances, society still experiences crime. In spite of advances in police weapons, criminals find ways to adapt. The advancement of robotic technology for law enforcement may prove to be the solution to this stalemate.

Rudimentary robots have been available for bomb disposal since their introduction in 1972. Inspired to spare future EOD casualties, Retired British Colonel Peter Miller invented the “Wheelbarrow” by modifying a garden mower with the addition of remote access controls [Smith, 2001]. Since 2000, with the increasing sophistication of “bomb robots” there has been the call for expansion of robotics in areas other than EOD. As robotic technology advances, their uses will also expand significantly for both military and law enforcement applications.

A bomb disposal robot inspects the area surrounding a armored van, top left of frame, during a stand off with a gunman barricaded inside the van, Saturday, June 13, 2015, in Hutchins, Texas.
A bomb disposal robot inspects the area surrounding a armored van, top left of frame, during a stand off with a gunman barricaded inside the van, Saturday, June 13, 2015, in Hutchins, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

With the fast-paced advancement of computer technology and robotic mechanics and materials, smarter and faster mobile robots that can mimic human movement and function could be available for human exploitation in the not-too-distant future. Already, there is the use of fixed automated robots at European Customs and Immigration entry checkpoints. Microsoft invested in mobile surveillance robots to observe and report suspicious or illegal activities. Even in Japan, department stores have experimented using robotics for customer service, and China has used robots in restaurants and other customer services.

Future generations of robots will eventually possess similar refined motor skills of manual manipulation. Unlike the current rudimentary bomb robots on tracks and wheels, these future robots could apprehend suspects, physically restrain subjects, and deploy less lethal ammunition to protect the public. Similar to other industries, robotics may become a viable augmentation to officers in the field, with a distant possibly of replacing human officers altogether to meet the future challenges of policing.

The trajectory of the robotics industry

According to an article in the November issue of a consulting firm McKinsey and Company’s McKinsey Quarterly, artificial intelligence and advanced robotics are capable of performing 45 percent of human job tasks. This has been evident since the beginning of the 20th century as automated functions replaced or augmented human labor in many production industries. At one time, companies had thousands of employees working on an assembly line to mass produce items, but overnight, many were replaced by mechanization which proved to be more cost effective, efficient, reproducible and relatively error free.

The exploitation of robotics has been used to improve the quality of the civilian workforce and is no different from robotics for military needs. Israel first used unmanned aerial vehicles successfully in their conflict with Syria in the early 1980s. It was not until the late 1990s that the U.S. military fully endorsed the use of UAVs for surveillance and conducting air strikes from a distance. The technology was widely used in the Gulf War conflict and is used in today’s fight against al-Qaeda and ISIS. Traditionally, the military relied on soldier’s “boots on the ground” for reconnaissance and artillery or air strike direction missions. This shift from traditional intelligence gathering and fighting has been spurred by the concern for U.S. troop casualties. The U.S. has accepted this technology to efficiently and effectively fight enemies with minimal collateral damage using a handful of trained servicemen miles away from their target.

The effectiveness of robotics on the battlefield may ease the path for Americans to accept robotics as a tool for policing in the near future in a manner similar to the U.S. military’s adoption of UAVs. There are scientists and technologists, such as Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates, however, who caution the world of the potential dangers of artificial intelligence. Like ATMs, society may have to incrementally adjust before gaining the trust of robots, as we are not fully prepared to relinquish total control. Even as some fear an intrusion of robots into their lives, though, China has begun to develop the “AnBot” robot to patrol banks, airports and schools. Even though some may be frightened of the prospect of humanoid robots, they have already been with us for some time.

In early 2000, Asimo was one of the first rudimentary bipedal robots created in Japan. Recently Boston Dynamics has unveiled its atlas robot, which stands at 5-foot-9-inches and weighs 180 pounds. It has the ability of bipedal motion like humans and even uprights itself when it falls. These robots are able to lift and carry heavy objects. Furthermore, the robot has a self-sustaining energy source and wireless remote control. These machines could be used to augment a police department patrol force. They could take incident reports, go on patrol, or be deployed in hostile situations requiring force on force. As the ability to sustain a growing human police department is no longer economically feasible, robotics may become a viable economic alternative to augment a patrol force.

The robot officer and police operations: 3 idea areas

Research indicates that three areas of expansion are surveillance/ intelligence gathering, controlled use to abate/mitigate human violence, and to take police reports.

Patrol robots could soon patrol the public streets, detecting and reporting crimes to monitoring human officers. With modern recording systems, these robots would accurately document the event and store this data for internal and external review. From a safe distance, human officers can safely assess a situation and develop tactical plans to apprehend suspects. Hostage negotiators would also have the ability to communicate with barricaded suspects from a safe distance. Robots could also be used to apprehend and physically restrain suspects using non-penetrating or lethal force. With today’s rising concerns of officers using deadly force, this could be a viable option of safely apprehending offenders without endangering officers and others. 

Online reporting is already a reality. Remote access robots can be an extension of today’s officers, responding to a crime scene and, through a remote operator, taking an accurate incident report. Statements from the victims, witnesses and suspects would be electronically recorded without misinterpretation or human bias. The software capturing the data could then be recorded, and also downloaded in a database to develop a COMSTAT profile to be used as an investigative tool.

Positive outcomes of robotic policing

Every year, California taxpayers pay millions of dollars in claims for medical treatment and lost wages due to injuries of workers. In addition, every year the state will absorb the cost of early retirement (and replacement) of police officers permanently disabled due to work related injuries. For example, the City and County of San Francisco will invest, on average, $300,000  in training and equipment, expecting a thirty-year career in return. With robotic officers, none of these expenses would occur. As they begin to exceed their flesh-and-blood partners, it would only be a matter of time before wholesale change occurs.

Ready, aim, plan:  The future robotic police department is in the lab

As robotic electronics become more energy efficient and battery technology advances, the powering of robots will be just like any other electronic technology (e.g. computer, cell phone, cameras and lights). Another area that will shape robotics is the type of materials that will be available in the present and future. Early robots, like earlier firearms, relied on the strength and durability of steel.

The law enforcement community should plan to incorporate this rapidly evolving technology. The upfront cost is outweighed by the costs associated with the future reduction of worker compensation claims, lawsuits, hiring and retention costs. The price of an “AnBot” is unknown at this time, but Chinese officials stated that if the manufacturer can bring the cost to 100,000 yuan/unit ($150,000 in U.S. dollars) then “it will sell big.”

Without advance planning, robotics will creep up on law enforcement like TASERs and body-worn cameras. Ten years ago, many said this was not likely to be the future for law enforcement. Today, the public’s demand for police transparency and accountability has outweighed the civil rights concern and propelled these technologies for standards and best practices in law enforcement. Robotics is an extension of this current technological advance.

U.S. police agencies should start to advocate and lobby for funding to use robotics as a tool for officers on patrol. In the future, law enforcement will have to work with the community members and politicians to develop laws, policies, and procedures that require flexibility to account for technology evolution and future shifts in cultural and ethical beliefs.

If we start today, the future will be more predictable. If not, the emergence of robotic police will be one more surprise for law enforcement.

About the author
Gregory Mar is currently a Captain of Police with the San Francisco Police Department commanding the Forensic Services Division. He has been a full time member with the department since 1991. Prior to that, he served as a police reserve officer while pursuing a career in dentistry, but switched careers in 1991 to follow his passion for law enforcement. He has a Bachelor's of Science in Biological Science from the University of California, Davis, Doctorate of Dental Surgery from the University of the Pacific Dental School and a Masters of Art in Educational Psychology from the University of the Pacific.

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