In an seemingly abandoned warehouse earlier this spring, Boulder County SWAT responders tasked with infiltrating a booby-trapped maze as part of a training scenario were set to work on opening doors and getting eyes on doors wired to explosives.
And no humans even had to step into the building.
The stars of the training scenario were actually robots, part of a collection that Boulder County law enforcement uses in situations involving anything from suspicious packages to armed suspects barricaded in an apartment.
Stephen Meer, the Boulder County Sheriff's Office SWAT technical team leader, said robots are an example of how law enforcement agencies use the latest technologies to keep both the public and officers safe while enabling them to be more efficient.
"It's very important for public safety agencies to have a wide range of tools at their disposal," Meer said. "These days, robots, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) are available as part of our tool kit so we can more quickly and more efficiently get situational awareness and a picture of what's going on."
One of the primary benefits of robots is that they can be sent in to possibly dangerous situations instead of officers, like calls of suspicious packages or hazardous materials.
"Basically what it allows us to do is perform functions remotely where otherwise we'd have to send technicians into dangerous situations," said Boulder police Sgt. Dave Spraggs, who is also a member of the Boulder County bomb squad. "If we can handle an operation remotely, we will do that instead of sending a tech downrange, because that way we are not putting a human life at risk."
The robots can also be used in hostage situations or when an armed person is barricaded in a building.
"If we have a dangerous person, we can move a robot in to communicate with that person and observe that person, and keep them from hurting themselves or someone else," Meer said. "If they get angry or violent, well, they're becoming hostile against a machine."
Added Meer: "Anytime we can use technology to be more efficient at bringing peaceful resolution to a situation and impact the least amount of people in the community, that's a good thing."
Meet the robots
Meer said that each individual agency buys different robots but that they share them across the county.
"We try and make sure that we have a wide range of capabilities and they complement each other," Meer said.
Spraggs said there are six larger robots in the county and said Boulder police have three larger of those built by Remotec, ranging from a 200-pound model to the 900-pound Wolverine model. While they all have fancy model numbers and designations, the response teams try not to get too technical when they bring a robot in.
"Sometimes we just say 'the big one,' or 'the little one,'" Meer said.
Each robot shares some basic characteristics — a functional arm and cameras — but each is ideal in different situations based on their size, mobility and extra functions.
"We really do make a determination given the best fit for that particular mission," Spraggs said.
Spraggs said that means that sometimes multiple robots will be called on at different points of the same operation. For instance, the smaller robots are more maneuverable and have camera capabilities, which makes them good for reconnaissance.
But they don't have arms, so they can't do things like inspect packages or open doors.
"The smaller ones are really just observation platforms," Spraggs said.
Meer pointed out that one of the county's robots is smaller and has dexterous arm capable of opening doors, while another larger one has an arm strong enough to drag out a person.
In one case this year, a robot was even used as a distraction to help police arrest a woman who had barricaded herself in her Boulder apartment.
"At different times in different situations, you might need different tools," Meer said. "It's no different from anything else officers do. This notion of the right tool for the right job isn't just for robots."
Meer said some of the robots are more than a decade old while others are very new. The departments all keep up with changing robot technology, but they make sure to evaluate cost and need before buying all the latest gadgets.
"When something becomes so old it have maintenance problems or we can't get replacement parts, then it's time to retire something," Meer said.
To make sure they are able to pilot those various robots, SWAT and bomb units train with the machines about once a month. At a recent training in Longmont last month, Meer set up several fake bombs and booby traps for the SWAT team and the robots to contend with.
"The operators are constantly practicing to make sure they keep their skills up to date," Meer said. "Just like any other tool or machine, its something you have to do often and keep fresh in your mind so it's second nature."
The controls are as varied as the robots. Some of the smaller ones are controlled with something not unlike a remote control toy, while one robot is even operated with an Xbox controller.
"They already use them, so they are used to it," Meer said.
The camera feeds from the various robots can all be transmitted to a trailer that serves as a command post, where officers can get a better picture of the situation they are dealing with. Officers can also communicate with people using the robots' microphones and speakers.
"You can take a step back, you can get intel and get pictures," said Longmont Officer Scott Pierce as he stood in the command post during a recent training run in Longmont. "The negotiator can come in here and talk using the robot."
Meer said that sort of negotiation can sometimes help keep suspects calm.
"It certainly lets us have a more low-key conversation with them, because we're not shouting from behind a barricade with a bullhorn," Meer said. "Our goal in all of this is not to provoke things and to make it calm and try and resolve the situation."
But while they are a very useful tool, Meer emphasized that robots are just that.
"These are specialized tools. They are not running around on the street every day, they are not involved in every situation and they are not a replacement for a police officer," Meer said. "They are just one piece of the toolbox to help provide public safety."
Mitchell Byars: 303-473-1329, email@example.com or twitter.com/mitchellbyars
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