Ala. PD to add tactical robot to SWAT team

“It takes a lot of the danger out," said Chief Nate Allen about the robot that can climb stairs and haul more than 250 pounds

By Marian Accardi
The Decatur Daily, Ala.

DECATUR, Ala. — Decatur police SWAT team members will soon have a new tool to help keep them safe when responding to an active-shooter, hostage or other dangerous situation.

The department is buying a $25,000 tactical robot that can automatically climb stairs and cross gravel, mud, clothing and other obstacles and navigate around corners. Money for the purchase from Transcend Tactical Inc. will come from drug seizure funds.

The idea is to send a robot into a home, school or other building where there could be an armed suspect or hostages being held to determine whether officers can safely enter.

“It takes a lot of the danger out” of an incident as officers and first-responders arrive on the scene, said police Chief Nate Allen. “Safety is a very important part of it.”

The robot is capable of climbing steps to a building and entering it, and climbing stairs inside a building, and can help “assess where the suspect is,” Allen said. “It can go around a corner and see what’s there before we make entrance.”

The Vantage robot provides live video and two-way audio to the remote controller, and has a 2,500-foot control range, according to the company. It can transport a 25-pound payload and haul more than 250 pounds.

“It can deliver a cellphone to the suspect,” Allen said. “And it can deploy tear gas or any kind of chemical agent.”

It also comes with an infrared camera for detecting heat signatures.

Allen said it will take one to two months to receive the robot. “The company will train us in how to use it,” he said.

The Decatur City Council last week voted to declare Transcend Tactical, of Newport Beach, California, a sole source provider for the robot and authorize its purchase without soliciting bids.

According to a letter from the company’s CEO Phillip Walker, the Vantage robot’s chemical dispersion technologies are patented and only manufactured by the company.

The company said its patented mobile technology allows the robot to automatically climb stairs and obstacles without the need to “pre-position” its flippers during and before ending a stair climb, so officers don’t have to expose themselves to any risk to assist the robot. Walker said that no other entity in the world sells the Vantage robot or the chemical dispersion technology.

“This robot has a unique functionality and it’s a patented functionality, and (Transcend) is the only place to get it,” said City Attorney Herman Marks. “If there’s only one source, you don’t have to bid it.”

Technology 'evolution'

The use of robots and other technology like pole cameras and drones has been “an evolution” in law enforcement, said Thor Eells, the executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association. The nonprofit organization represents SWAT teams and other law enforcement specialists.

“As technology is proven and becomes more affordable, more agencies are acquiring it,” Eells said. “It’s something we’ve encouraged agencies to seek and acquire as the opportunity presents itself and budgets allow.”

Eells was with the Colorado Springs Police Department for more than 30 years, retiring in 2017.

“The more information you have to enhance situational awareness, the more likely you are to make a more informed decision” and have a peaceful outcome, he said. “That’s the goal.”

Athens' robot

Another area police department has been using a tactical robot for more than five years.

In Athens, a tactical robot was purchased in November 2014 with a $25,000 grant from the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation. It’s used by the department’s High-Risk Entry & Arrest Team (HEAT) and other officers, according to Police Chief Floyd Johnson.

“We’ve used it several times,” Johnson said. “Every time we’ve used it, no one has been hurt.

“It’s invaluable.”

The Avatar III robot was deployed for the first time in April 2015 to end an hours-long standoff.

An Athens man went onto his porch and shot a .45-caliber handgun into the air and, while he was reloading after emptying the gun magazine, someone in the neighborhood notified police, according to reports. Johnson said at the time that the suspect ran into his home when he saw an officer arrive and he released his wife and three children shortly after the standoff began.

Police and the man’s wife tried unsuccessfully to talk with the suspect, and eventually officers tossed the robot into an open window at the rear of the house and located the suspect, who had passed out.

The standoff ended without incident, with the man being arrested and charged with discharging a firearm in the city limits and reckless endangerment.

©2020 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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