Robot Image Gallery
Robot Image Gallery

Although some current police robots can patrol the streets, they're not nearly as animated as the character from "RoboCop" seen here at the Toy Fair in New York City. See more robot images.

Timothy A. Clary/ AFP/ Getty Images

Introduction to How Police Robots Work

It's the summer of 2007 in Perm, Russia, and a new police officer has joined the force. The new cop gets a lot of attention. Not exactly svelte, the officer tips the scales at 550 pounds. This cop doesn't walk the beat either -- it rolls along the street on wheels. It's called R Bot 001, and it's the squad's first robot police officer.

Robot Image Gallery 

R Bot 001 looks like a 5-foot-9-inch upright bullet or rocket moving around on four tires. Its main function is to monitor the streets for crime using its five video cameras. It has a button that citizens can press to contact the police station in times of need, and it even has the ability to deliver simple orders, like telling drunken pedestrians to go home and sober up.

The Perm police haven't released much more information about the robotic officer, possibly because R Bot 001's debut was less than stellar. A few hours after hitting the streets, the robot encountered some stormy weather. Unfortunately, the robot's casing wasn't waterproof. Water leaked into the robot, shorting out it's electrical system. Officers had to retrieve R Bot 001 and bring it back for repairs [source: The Australian].

But R Bot 001 isn't the first robot to find a place within a police unit. Many large police forces use robots for particularly dangerous situations, like disarming bombs or performing reconnaissance on a possible hostage situation. These devices may not look as impressive as RoboCop -- or even the R Bot 001 -- but they're sophisticated pieces of machinery designed to handle some of the most dangerous situations police can encounter. In this article, we'll learn what makes these robotic devices tick and the different ways police can use them.

In the next section, we'll look at the ways a police robot can be controlled.

A police bomb disposal expert walks with a remote controlled police robot.

Torsten Silz/AFP/Getty Images

Police Robot Control

Police robots aren't autonomous. They can't think for themselves or make decisions -- a police officer controls every move remotely. Depending on the model, the robot may be wireless or may have a cable tethering it to a power or control station. Wireless models are radio controlled, like a complex remote control car.

An officer can control the robot from either a unique console specifically designed for the robot, or a laptop computer loaded with the appropriate software. Some models include specialized controllers, like custom joysticks that an officer can plug into a laptop, while others may require input through keyboard commands.

Robot command and control centers are portable, allowing officers to set up a station a safe distance away from where the robot will carry out its duties. Normally, an officer operates the robot within sight of it so that it's easier to maneuver it across difficult terrain or around obstacles.

This robot can be maneuvered in a rail station, on a rail car or bus, and even up stairs.

Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images

The operator can also see what the robot's cameras pick up on computer monitors. How far away the officer is depends upon the robot -- tethered robots are limited by the length of the cable connecting the machine to its power source or control center, while wireless robots can operate any distance within its capacity to detect radio signals.

In the next section, we'll look at an overview of a typical police robot.

This robot moves on treads rather than wheels.

John Moore/ Getty Images

Police Robot Movement

A few companies manufacture police robots, and some produce different models based upon the needs and resources of different police forces. No two models are exactly the same, but most models share basic features and functions.

Because it's tricky to design a robot that walks on legs, police robots usually get around on rubber tires or treads. Some models have pneumatic wheels that are easy to remove and replace, decreasing the space needed to store or transport the machine. Many models also have individually powered wheels, making it easier for the operator to navigate rough terrain -- he can cut power to any wheel not in contact with the ground and redirect traction to the other wheels. Some models have track-mounted wheels with articulation -- the tracks can flex to meet the contours of the ground. A few can even climb stairs.

Sophisticated robots require a hefty power source. If the robot isn't tethered to a power source with a cable, it needs an onboard battery. Because most robots weigh hundreds of pounds (over 800 pounds for some models), they need batteries that can deliver significant levels of power for several hours at a time. For this reason, police robots use lead-acid batteries, the same sort of batteries used in cars.

Robots used to manipulate objects like bombs or hazardous materials need a robotic arm. Robotic arms usually have several points of articulation or joints. The arm might have the same capabilities of a human arm, with shoulder, elbow and wrist articulation, or it may have many more joints, allowing the operator to reach places he wouldn't be able to get to on his own. On the end of the arm is a manipulator, usually a gripping device in the form of a two-fingered claw.

Because the officer controlling the robot is at least several meters away from the robot, he needs a way to see the robot's environment independent of his own perspective. For this reason, police robots use video cameras to broadcast images back to the operator's laptop or console. Most robots use at least two or three cameras so that the operator can stay aware of the robot's surroundings. Some models have a camera mounted on every point of articulation, as well as stationary cameras attached to the body of the robot. Video camera systems range from black-and-white to night vision and infrared.

Another feature many police robots have is a two-way audio system. Manufacturers mount microphones and speakers on the robot, allowing police to listen to sounds in the robot's environment or communicate with suspects or hostages in a dangerous situation. The robot can become the eyes and ears of the police force without a single officer being put in harm's way.

In the next section, we'll look at police robots in action.

A robot places a small explosive device to destroy a larger car bomb. After the explosion, the robot returns to the vehicle to check for any unexploded devices.

Cris Bouroncle/ AFP/ Getty Images

Police Robot Tasks

Because the majority of police robots are highly mobile and have sophisticated audio and visual systems, police have the option to use them in several situations. The most common use for a police robot is in bomb removal and disposal. While robots are expensive, the cost is small compared to that of human life. Some robots are so tough that they can survive multiple blasts. Still, most of the time the goal is to avoid any sort of explosion at all.

When investigating a potential bomb, police officers use the cameras on the robot to assess the situation. If the robot is able to reach the suspicious device, the operator can use the claw to grip the device, lift it and move it to a cleared location for detonation. In cases where the device isn't easily accessible or appears to have a triggering mechanism that will activate if the device moves, police may have to detonate the device on-site.

Robots can also be used as a surveillance device. A robot with microphones and night vision can approach a potentially unsafe area while broadcasting information back to the operator. Using a robot can help reduce the time it takes for police to assess a situation, without placing an officer at risk.

By using the two-way audio system, police can communicate with anyone from suspects to hostages. Robots are useful in negotiation situations because unless they're visibly armed, they're relatively nonthreatening. Another benefit is that the robot's cameras can continue gathering information while police use the audio system to communicate with people in dangerous situations. The police can also use robots to deliver items like food to victims and suspects in hostage situations without risking an officer's life.

Some robots have sensors that can detect anything from narcotics to biological, radioactive or chemical weapons. Robots help first responders determine how dangerous an area is quickly and safely. Operators can maneuver robots through hazardous environments to find survivors. Some robots are strong enough to drag victims out of lethal situations.

Companies like Remotec and RoboticFX are constantly working to develop new robots for police forces, the military and other organizations that deal with hazardous situations. Newer models have better maneuverability, longer-lasting batteries, arms with more points of articulation and new accessories designed to help officers perform dangerous tasks.

In the future, robots might be more autonomous, eliminating the need for a human operator calling the shots from a command console. As robots become more agile, we may see an increase of an armed robotic police presence.

But even when companies can meet all the technological demands of an autonomous, armed police force, there'll still be social and political hurdles. What happens if a police robot malfunctions and harms someone, for example? Also, robots are expensive to purchase and maintain and require an officer's input to function.

But their drawbacks are minor when you consider that robots help keep law enforcement officials safe. For now, police robots are pretty rare -- there's little chance you'll bump into one the next time you're at Krispy Kreme -- but in a few decades, we might just see a rocket-shaped robot officer on wheels instructing us when to cross the street at the crosswalk.

You can learn more about robots and related articles by following the links on the next page. ­ ­

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • Komarow, Steven. "Robots nail down the nuts and bolts of bomb disposal." USA Today. October 24, 2005. http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/techinnovations/2005-10-24-robot-war_x.htm
  • Remotec http://www.es.northropgrumman.com/remotec/
  • RoboticFX http://www.roboticfx.com/
  • "Robocop hits Russia's streets." Herald Sun. June 26, 2007. http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,21972028-5005961,00.html
  • "Robocop takes to Russian streets." AFP.com. June 26, 2007. http://rawstory.com/news/afp/Robocop_takes_to_Russian_streets_06262007.html
  • "Robot Sent to Disarm Bomb Goes Wild in San Francisco." The New York Times. August 28, 1993. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CEFDA153EF93BA1575BC0A965958260
  • "Robotic cop unleashed." Taipei Times. http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/world/archives/2007/06/27/2003367044/print
  • "Russian RoboCop fizzles in the rain." Lawyers Weekly. June 29, 2007. http://www.lawyersweekly.com.au/articles/69/0C04D769.asp?Type=56&Category=845