Tactical Robot Joins Police Ranks

Weighing in at 5 pounds and small enough to fit in a backpack, the Simi Valley Police Department’s newest recruit has offi- cially joined the ranks.

SVPD acquired FirstLook, its first tactical robot, from Bedford, Mass.-based robotics company iRobot in March.

The $21,000 robot will be used in situations like out-of-the-ordinary alarm calls, standoffs, natural disasters, collapsed buildings and gas leaks, said Officer Brian Kiely.

FirstLook allows officers to communicate with suspects and other people through a built-in, two-way speaker. It can climb over small obstacles like curbs. It’s also waterproof up to a depth of 3 feet and can withstand a 16- foot drop onto concrete.

“By using technology like this, I can have officers back off a little more and provide even more of a safety net between a dangerous situation and officers or the public,” Kiely said. “The technology is out there, so we might as well use it.”

Kiely, who spent nine years in the U.S. Army Reserve and has a technical background, is heading the effort to train officers to use the robot in the field.

“I haven’t really set anything up yet, but I’m working to train more people, whether it’s supervisors, SWAT or anyone else, because that just puts more eyes out there,” he said. “It would be ideal if every officer knows the capabilities and how to use the system instead of having to call in someone else and creating a delay.”

In December, the City Council approved the SVPD’s request to use $177,000 from the city’s assetforfeiture fund to buy the tactical robot, other new equipment and various services, including a new key fob entry system and an online reporting program.

The fund which consists of money confiscated from arrested criminals, can be used for services and equipment directly related to enhancing law enforcement capabilities. When the request was approved in December, the fund had a balance of $207,300.

While the department was shopping around for a robot last year, Kiely said, iRobot loaned him a similar system as a tester. It was used several times in the field, once in response to a call about a man assaulting his roommates with a machete.

“The last time (the roommates) saw him, he was in a house,” Kiely said. “We threw (the robot) into the house and drove around to keep the distance between us and the man. It didn’t put us in a predicament where he could hurt us, and we didn’t have to hurt him.”

Integrating tactical robots
Kiely said the extra time he’s spent learning about tactical robots is worth it if he uses First- Look even just once.

“If I take this out the first night or use it once in the field and it gets destroyed but it keeps another officer, a K-9 or member of the public safe, then I’m happy,” he said.

While FirstLook provides safety benefits, it hasn’t been easy trying to expand the department’s robotics program, Kiely said. He hopes to add at least two more small tactical robots, a few larger ones with additional capabilities like climbing stairs, and an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, for extremely dangerous situations.

“It’s a new type of policing,” Kiely said. “We have a few officers who are old-school, and getting them to realize what the robot’s capabilities are has taken a while, but they’re starting to come around after they see it in action.”

Kiely said the best part of acquiring the robot is the fact that it gives the department an additional tool to keep officers safe in the field.

“In our job, we’re paid to go into dangerous situations and be scared—always scared, all the time—but if it’s that situation where the hair goes up on the back of your neck, now we have another option.”

Kiely said he’s working on state and federal grant proposals to help the department acquire more robots.

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