The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

December 1, 2013

Eye Robot

By Mannix Porterfield
For The Register-Herald

Institute — An enraged man, armed with a rifle and threatening to shoot everyone in sight, sprays multiple volleys of gunfire over a wide range, keeping police pinned down while hostages cringe inside, wondering if they will see another sunrise.

Suddenly, a bizarre little machine ascends the steps of his embattled house and strikes up a conversation with the gunman.

Puzzled, the combatant is still hostile, but his temper begins to cool, as a State Police officer, controlling the robot from a safe distance, begins to communicate with him via a loudspeaker to see what set him off and what it will take to end the standoff.

Minutes later, he throws down the weapon and emerges in a calmer mood.

Not every scenario ends that happily, but that is the intent of the State Police’s special operations unit, whether its officers seek to defuse a potentially deadly episode, or remove a bomb.

Produced by Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Va., the Andros Robots hardly fit the popular conception of a robot, such as “Robby” in the 1956 science fiction classic “Forbidden Planet.”

Rather, it appears more like a mechanized wagon, running along with the aid of four lawnmower-like wheels and “articulators” that look something like tread on a miniature tank and get more traction when challenging obstacles lie in its path. The robot is controlled remotely and moves via an orange “leash,” about 1,500 feet in length, and consisting of fiber optics, resembling fly line used in trout fishing.

“We use it for different things,” explains Capt. Ron Arthur, head of Special Operations for the Department of Public Safety.

For instance, the Explosive Response Team can deploy the machines without exposing one of its members to a potential lethal blast and remove the device, Arthur explained.

“They get it with a robot and take it some place safer, or they can put a water cannon or some other instrument on the robot to destroy the explosive in place,” the captain said.

“You can also talk through the robot and you can see what it’s looking at through a screen at a safe distance away. We can use it to negotiate. We’ve used it several times. We’ve had barricaded subjects and hostages where we’ve been able to send the robot down and talk and communicate and negotiate with it, rather than putting a person right in front of them where they would get shot.”

At times, someone holed up in a house feels more comfortable talking out his troubles to a machine rather than a man, Arthur said.

“I think a lot of times, it surprises them, and maybe it’s a little bit confusing to them,” the captain said.

“But it’s a great tool for us. It’s probably saved some guys’ lives. No doubt in my mind. We’ve had robots shot and that robot would have been a guy. It has saved the lives of citizens as well as troopers. The bomb techs use it. They make it look easy, and it’s hard. It takes a special skill and a lot of training. Our guys do an outstanding job with it.”

In one exercise, he recalled, one of the three robots now used by the department climbed two flights of stairs at the State Police Academy in Institute, opened a door handle and entered a room.

“It was really impressive,” Arthur said.

“A high priority with our department is safety. The colonel (Superintendent Jay Smithers) and everybody else wants us to be as safe as we can. We don’t compromise safety for anything. We want our guys to be effective and not only make citizens safer but make each other safer.”

Grants pay for the devices, which run just under $100,000, but don’t cover the costs of repairs, and these aren’t cheap. Replacing the fiber optics lead line alone can cost about $1,400.

Men assigned to working with the robots at times choose nicknames, such as “Fast Eddie.” In one tense situation, a man engaged in a standoff began chatting with the robot as if it were human, calling him “Little Buddy.”

One robot failed to elicit such a cordial response when it was pressed into duty after an elderly man opened fire on police in Nicholas County in a five-hour confrontation this summer. His response was a few telling blasts from a .12-gauge shotgun.

“It took some rounds at the expense of saving someone’s life,” Arthur said.

“We’d rather pay for having a machine fixed than having to make a phone call to save someone’s life. Our goal is always to handle it as peacefully as possible and as safely as possible for everybody, whether it be the bad guy or the law enforcement and citizens.”

Above all, Arthur said, police strive to produce a peaceful resolution.

“However, you’ve got some people that just won’t have it that way,” he said. “And they really leave you no choice, unfortunately.”

Technology keeps improving in leaps and bounds, and eventually one advance would be to scrap the cable, since it can get entangled in objects.

“Then it limits you like a dog being on a great big leash,” he said.

Sgt. Travis Berry, the logistics and training officer and a bomb technician, says the devices are “very handy” in responding to explosives and other touch-and-go crises.

“We can go down range on a bomb, or somebody with a gun, instead of one of us,” he said. “With all the steering apparatuses, with the remote or with fiber optics, we can steer it left, right, do a turnaround of 360 degrees, go forward and reverse. It’s all controlled from a joy stick. We have those lawn mower ties and with the articulators, in front and back, we can go over things and up and down stairs and different obstacles. All we have to do is recharge the battery, a 24-volt.”

When the robot — one in the State Police stable was nicknamed “The Blade” by a Morgantown school girl — moves in for action, it has plenty of eyes for duty.

“The robot has three different cameras,” Berry explained.

“There is a tower camera. And you have a camera on the arm and one drive camera on the bottom to assist you when driving it remotely. You have to use all the cameras. In order to steer this thing when there is no way to see where it’s going, you have to switch your different camera views back and forth, so you don’t get your robot in a bind, or tangled up in a cord, if you’re running a cord on back of it.”

By using the tower camera, the robot can turn full circle and see what’s in back in case the operator needs to back up or turn around, he said.

“Once you’re running it remote, your eyes aren’t in there with it,” Berry said. “Your eyes are through the cameras. It’s kind of like playing a video game.”

A microphone picks up conversation and the robot is armed with a loudspeaker to aid police in negotiating with a suspect if he has barricaded himself with a firearm, the sergeant pointed out.

“We can communicate with the suspect and hopefully talk him out of doing something really bad and have him come out and surrender to us,” he said. “We have been on several situations like that. They don’t always end happily. Sometimes, people just don’t listen.”

Others are conciliatory.

“Some people will see the robot and understand what it is and understand we’re using this as a way to communicate with them and talk back and forth,” Berry said. “They realize, hey, we really are there to help them and they’ll come out and everything will be fine.”

On occasion, the robots have been targets of pistols, shotguns and rifles.

“There have been several incidents where people have shot the robot, knowing it’s not one of us,” Berry said. “Obviously, it doesn’t look like a human and they still decide to go ahead and shoot it, too.”

Until more advanced technology is installed, the older model robots in use by the State Police aren’t equipped to record conversation or images, so no actual recordings are kept.

“Hopefully, in the future, we’ll be able to do some upgrades,” the sergeant said.

“I’d love to upgrade to the newer versions. Like everything else, with the way budgets and money is these days, everybody is pitching pennies to get by. Our robots have paid for themselves several times. They have saved our lives as bomb techs and our SRT members several times.”

Although the robot cannot actually detect an explosive itself, equipment can be attached to assist in this and the machine then can render a device useless. On its arm is a claw-like appendage that acts like a pincher, capable of squeezing an object and removing it.

“We can reach out and pick a lot of things up,” the sergeant said.

“Or we can reach in and open a doorknob. I won’t say the robot can do 100 percent what a human can do. But it does pretty good about getting in places and moving around.”

Arthur recalled one sensational rescue, when an officer was down and the sniper couldn’t be pinpointed. Like all officers attached to the tactical unit, the trooper had a drag handle on the back of his vest.

“The robot was able to go over and grab the drag vest and handle with the pincher and back it up and get the guy in cover, rather than sending another guy for the sniper to shoot, too,” the captain said. “It was easy for the robot to pull him.”

How many steps a robot can ascend hinges on the battery running it, said Sgt. Kevin Keplinger, assistant commander of the bomb squad.

“A battery lasts about three hours and we keep extra sets on charge so all we have to do is bring it in and swap out, so we should be able to operate pretty indefinitely,” Keplinger said.

“If it rolls up on a porch, and it shuts down, we can extend that considerably. That’s three hours of continuous operation and driving it or manipulating the arm, doing that type of work through it.”

Inside a truck, intently watching the robot in a demonstration on the parking lot of the State Police Academy, one of the expert controllers, Sgt. Anthony Webb, gives the robot high praise.

“It’s a life saver,” said the bomb technician assigned to Special Operations.

“The motto of the company (manufacturer) is ‘Keeping Danger At a Distance.’ This allows me to operate in a safe area and not really be in any danger myself. The equipment would be in danger, but it’s repairable.”

On many occasions, he said, the robot has been able to peer inside windows and let police know exactly where a subject is hiding, while a trooper is out of harm’s way.

“It’s a big advantage,” Webb said. “Most of the time, people don’t have a big reaction to it, but we had someone grab hold of it.”

Arthur recounted the uneventful end to a crisis in which a barricaded man surrendered, ending a botched suicide.

“Later, in an interview with the subject, he admitted his plan was suicide by cop,” the captain said. “He wanted us to make an entry and he intended to die.”

Enter the robot and the man ended his deadlock, giving up to the robot.

Asked to explain, he told the police, “What was I going to do with it?”

Keplinger finds it amazing that the younger generation, born to a world of high-tech devices, readily adapts to running the robot.

“I could sit down with a 6-, 7-, 8-year-old, give him a half-hour of instruction, and he could have it doing things I couldn’t dream of doing,” he said.

“It’s the Internet generation. I must have missed it somewhere along the way growing up.”

Arthur says his troops are trained to put human lives above all else, and the goal in every tense situation is to mitigate a tension-filled drama.

“Unfortunately, the world we live in today, that’s not always possible,” he said.

“Someone else’s aggressive action dictates the way things end. We’re still going to strive to do our very best to make things as safe for everyone involved. These robots have been so valuable in doing that, not only preserving lives of law enforcement but preserving the lives of good citizens and people that are doing wrong alike.”