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Robotic Dog Aims To Help Police Take A Bite Out Of Crime

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. So cops have long had dogs and also robots to help them do their jobs. Well, now they have a robot dog. Robotics company Boston Dynamics is loaning out its doglike robot named Spot to police departments, beginning with the Massachusetts State Police. This is raising questions about the future of police robotics and what kind of oversight there should be.

From member station WBUR, Ally Jarmanning has the story.

ALLY JARMANNING, BYLINE: Spot is a robot that gets a reaction.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, my goodness. It's kind of scary looking, actually.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It looks like one of those things from "Aliens," you know?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Feels like it has a brain to me. And I (ph) feel like that's alive. I wouldn't go near that.

JARMANNING: Those are people in Boston watching videos of Spot opening doors and climbing over snow banks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MECHANICAL WHIRRING)

JARMANNING: Spot kind of looks like a headless dog - a metal one. It has four legs, a long arm and a 360-degree camera. Massachusetts State Police became the first law enforcement agency in the country to get access to Spot earlier this year with a three-month loan. The loan was revealed in documents requested by the ACLU of Massachusetts. Why lend this brand-new robot to police? Michael Perry is vice president of business development at Boston Dynamics.

MICHAEL PERRY: We've tried to make the robot as customizable as possible so that our customers can do exploration and really totally understand what the value of a legged robot is in the real world.

JARMANNING: Police have long used robots when dealing with potential bombs or hostage situations, places where they wouldn't want to send a human in. State police troopers were giddy about getting to use the more nimble Spot. Spot's police handlers gave specific feedback to Boston Dynamics. Spot did great walking over big dirt mounds, but not so great dealing with tall grass. In two real-life police calls, it checked out a suspicious briefcase and surveilled a barricaded suspect.

Both Boston Dynamics and state police are quick to say that Spot wasn't and won't be weaponized, but it's not unheard of.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: It appears to be the first time police have ever used a robot bomb on U.S. soil.

JARMANNING: As NBC News reported in 2016, Dallas police sent a bomb disposal robot armed with explosives to kill a sniper. That sniper had earlier killed five police officers. Boston Dynamics says a lease agreement won't allow clients to use Spot to physically harm or intimidate people. But that doesn't quell concerns from people like Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts.

KADE CROCKFORD: The secrecy surrounding all of that is very concerning.

JARMANNING: Crockford wants to see a policy from state police or even a state law about the use of robotics. And they want more openness about the program.

CROCKFORD: The technology that can be used in concert with a robotic system like this is almost limitless in terms of what kinds of surveillance and potentially even weaponization operations may be allowed.

JARMANNING: Even some law enforcement officers see the need for more transparency about how police are using robots. Thor Eells is the executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association and a former SWAT commander. He gets that people want to know more about how robots are used. Law enforcement should balance any tactical secrecy with the public's right to know how their police departments are working.

THOR EELLS: These tools are used in critical incidents. The primary purpose of it is to gather information to help in making decisions that can ultimately save lives.

JARMANNING: He noted police still have to abide by the law. If you need a warrant to send a person into someone's home, you also need one to send a robot. But judging from the trooper's excitement over the robot dog, Spot will probably be on a few police departments' wish lists. For NPR News, I'm Ally Jarmanning in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF LRKR'S "BLUE LOVE (UBERVICE REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.