Use of police robot to kill Dallas shooting suspect believed to be first in US history

Police’s lethal use of bomb-disposal robot in Thursday’s ambush worries legal experts who say it creates gray area in use of deadly force by law enforcement.

For what experts are calling the first time in history, US police have used a robot in a show of lethal force. Early Friday morning, Dallas police used a bomb-disposal robot with an explosive device on its manipulator arm to kill a suspect after five police officers were murdered and seven others wounded.

“We saw no other option but to use our bomb robot and place a device on its extension for it to detonate where the suspect was,” Dallas police chief David Brown told reporters.

Peter Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation who writes about the technology of warfare, said he believed this was a first. “There may be some story that comes along, but I’d think I’d have heard of it,” he said.

Others concurred. “As far as I know, it appears to be the first intentional use of a lethally armed robot by the police in the United States,” said Elizabeth Joh, law professor at the University of California at Davis.

This is not the first time a robot designed with other functions in mind has been used as a weapon, but this kind of repurposing has until now been limited to the military. Singer said that in the early 2000s, a solider he interviewed repurposed a surveillance robot called a Marcbot with a bomb. These robots aren’t autonomous, Singer emphasized – the Marcbot “is like a toy truck with a sensor and camera mount they’d use to drive up to a checkpoint”. But this soldier had improvised: “They duct-taped an explosive and you can figure out the rest. You can see the parallels here.

Singer also said that he was “in no way, shape or form condemning” the DPD’s decision. Brown said the decision protected police officers on a night when their lives were at greater risk than usual. “Other options would have exposed our officers in grave danger,” Singer said.

Joh said she was worried that the decision by police to use robots to end lives had been arrived at far too casually. “Lethally armed police robots raise all sorts of new legal, ethical, and technical questions we haven’t decided upon in any systematic way,” she said. “Under federal constitutional law, excessive-force claims against the police are governed by the fourth amendment. But we typically examine deadly force by the police in terms of an immediate threat to the officer or others. It’s not clear how we should apply that if the threat is to a robot – and the police may be far away.” That, Joh added, is only one condition for the use of lethal force. “In other words, I don’t think we have a framework for deciding objectively reasonable robotic force. And we need to develop regulations and policies now, because this surely won’t be the last instance we see police robots.”

The “bomb robot” used is assumed to be the DPD’s bomb-disposal unit, a wheeled, remote-controlled (as opposed to autonomous) robot with a manipulator arm on top. “When there’s a suspected explosive device, a suspected IED, you have this device with a robotic arm and a gripper on it,” Singer explained. “You might use the device to open up a bag and see if there’s a bomb in it. You might use the gripper to disassemble the device in the classic Hollywood movie cut-the-wire way; you might shoot high-pressure water into it, and you might do a controlled detonation.”

That, Singer said, is why the department had explosives handy – sometimes the preferred way to deal with a bomb is to evacuate the area around it and use another bomb to blow it up.

Similar robots were used in the DPD’s showdown with a gunman who assaulted the department’s headquarters with guns and bombs almost exactly a year ago.

On the military side, such improvisations are both the solution and, increasingly, the problem. “We’ve seen insurgents improvise,” Singer said. “Literally this week, the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency [an agency within the Department of Defense whose purpose is to develop better ways for the military to respond to IEDs] got a $20m grant to defeat drone IEDs, not for missiles but for small commercial drones that you and I could buy, which are used by Isis for both surveillance and for explosive delivery.

“Technology is a tool,” Singer said. “Tools are used the way they’re designed, and then people improvise and find new uses for them.”