Westminster Police Department might have just changed the face of patrol work this month when officers began using a robot as an intelligence-gathering tool for potentially dangerous calls.
Sgt. Jeremy Hill was the sergeant on-scene Jan. 15 for a call at a Westminster mobile home park where a man was acting strangely and in possession of a handgun.
“An in-home healthcare nurse called 911,” said Hill. “It was at a mobile home park and we went there and we tried all of our options.”
Rather than continuing to use the PA system from the patrol cars and attracting residents’ attention on what was essentially a welfare check, Hill decided to deploy the new patrol robot, which was installed into one of the sergeant patrol vehicles on Dec. 21. Equipped with cameras and a two-way communication system, and operated by a remote controller, the robot is able to scout out locations to avoid putting officers in harm’s way on various types of calls. Since June, West County SWAT has been using a robot. And now, patrol has one too.
Hill said that on the Jan. 15 call, the first time the new patrol robot was used, he was able to deploy it from three mobile homes away. It drove up the stairs of the man’s mobile home and hit up against the door. Hill spoke with the man via the speaker system.
“He complied, he was completely cooperative … and he came out and our officers detained him,” said Hill.
Ordinarily it would have been an officer knocking on that door instead of the robot. It turned out that there was a handgun in the home – though the man did not threaten police. But there are many other calls that don’t turn out as well.
“The safety of us being three mobile homes away … compared to us sending a human [officer],” said Hill. “You can’t put any value on that.”
WPD Commander Cord Vandergrift, who coordinated the agency’s purchase of the police robots from Transcend Tactical, is developing a policy for using the robot in patrol. Officers are being trained for working the robot – something Vandergrift estimates will take only a matter of minutes.
“The hope is to save some lives of officers and citizens,” said Vandergrift.
Transcend Tactical CEO Phil Walker wants his robotic tech to help save lives at police agencies everywhere.
“Our mission is to save lives through distance,” he said. “Those lives include officers and citizens. We’ve had great success in patrol because our patented mobility technology allows officers to effectively use the robots with almost no training.”
The new patrol robot at WPD is another step toward that direction. It is a first for the agency to use a robot for patrol. The agency will evaluate, during a trial period, the patrol robot’s effectiveness for Walker’s use in developing future robots.
“Everybody will have the ability to use it,” said Vandergrift of the new addition.
The 50-pound robot is outfitted with wheels and cameras, and is directed via a separate controller. The person operating the controller can direct the robot down hallways and into rooms, outside on gravel, up stairs and can even push unlocked doors open. Through the controller, the officer can communicate via a speaker system with a suspect. The cameras on the robot give the officer sight while directing it and also when encountering a suspect. There’s a small screen on the controller itself.
It’s been used multiple times by West County SWAT in the field for warrant searches and other calls. Instead of sending out a SWAT officer to clear a location, the industrial-strength robot can perform the recon – limiting the risk to officers.
“We drive it pretty much through the entire house before we go in,” said Vandergrift of its use in SWAT situations.
Part of a recent demonstration open to area police agencies and hosted at the WPD Range and Safety Training Center in late November involved the unveiling of a new accessory developed by Walker: an extra attachment that allows the robot to hold a police gas canister that can be deployed remotely.
“The Gas Deployment System is a game-changer,” said Walker. “It’s the only product of its kind able to deploy multiple gas canisters under complete control to disrupt a dangerous suspect. We have multiple major agencies using this product with great success. It’s amazing because no one’s really done this in the market.”
Vandergrift sees the new patrol robot as the future.
“This is the easiest robot you can ever use,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if eventually every cop has a robot in the car.”
Hill said once officers familiarize themselves with the robot and what it can do, it’s going to make a huge difference in patrol.
“It just makes our calls run so much smoother and safer,” he said. “On a real-life call, to see it work and work so well, the six guys on that [Jan. 15] call are gonna be way more apt to call for a robot.”