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Police robots in Texas help make fighting crime safer

August 8, 2018

DALLAS (AP) — There’s a robotic battalion in North Texas on standby, ready to combat crime and defuse potentially deadly situations.

The Dallas Morning News reports when they can, police departments prefer to send this team in. It’s safer — and can be more effective — to have robots handle suspicious packages, stray grenades, barricaded people and more.

In July 2016, the Dallas Police Department’s bomb squad used one to transport C4 that was detonated to end an hours-long standoff and kill the man who had earlier gunned down five officers in a downtown ambush.

That is one of the most extreme situations in which a police robot has been used in North Texas — and it’s thought to be the first time a robot was used in American policing to kill a suspect. But its mission that night is the same as every time a robot is deployed: Keep officers and civilians safe.

Sgt. Brad Ewell has the controls dialed in on the Remotec F6B and handles the joystick the same way he did the Atari controls of his childhood. It’s a twitchy system for the inexperienced, but he’s learned how to best maneuver the robot’s arms and body.

“You can take a kid that’s played Xbox his whole life and throw him on that and he’ll run it (the robot) through obstacle courses,” he said.

But what Ewell is doing is no game. From inside the bomb squad’s truck where he watches a video feed from the robot, he can manipulate the F6B through most situations, including opening doors of suspicious vehicles or rolling down the hallways of a school.

Ewell, who has been on the force since 1995, has spent six years on the bomb squad, and says most people have the wrong idea about what his team does exactly.

“There’s really hardly any ‘Do you cut the red wire? Do you cut the blue wire?’ ” he said. “It’s running robots, it’s disrupting packages and going back down there and seeing what’s in them.”

Plano PD got its first robot in 1994. Before that, bomb techs had to put on safety suits to investigate suspicious packages. They still do that, but the choice to send in a robot isn’t hard when one of the risks of getting too close is overpressure from the explosion’s shockwave that can destroy a human body.

“Our whole goal is to stay away from something we think might blow up,” Ewell said. “If I can drive that down there, it’s much better than me putting the suit on and going down there and seeing what it is.”

The team now serves nine surrounding counties. And because it’s considered a regional asset, the department is eligible for the federal Urban Area Security Initiative grant, which aids in the purchase of both of its robots.

The F6B can do a general disruption on a package, drag a body away from danger, or peek over an 8-foot privacy fence.

It can also climb stairs, though stealth is not one of its strengths.

“It’s an ugly loud process; you won’t sneak this up the stairs,” Ewell said. “It sounds like a tank rattling down the street.”

Sometimes it works with the bomb squad’s other robot, the smaller Remotec HD-1, to open zippered bags with its mechanized claw.

When a pineapple-style grenade was spotted at a McKinney recycling facility, Ewell responded with the bigger robot. An X-ray revealed the device was a novelty grenade with a drilled-out bottom. A battery stuffed into the hole had corroded and re-sealed the base.

The fake grenade was spotted in March at the height of the deadly package bombings that rattled Austin.

“People got more nervous, and that’s happened after every major event,” Ewell said. “You start getting more calls because suddenly things people took for granted are nerve-wracking to them.”

But, that’s OK, Ewell said. “We’d rather go to 100 calls that are nothing than have somebody get hurt because they didn’t want to call us. It all takes time but it’s well worth the time for it.”

In May 2015, Garland police encountered a situation that some officers call the scariest of their careers.

Two men with assault rifles got out of a car and began shooting outside the Curtis Culwell Center, where a prophet Muhammad cartoon contest was being held. The men were stopped outside and fatally shot by a Garland officer and members of SWAT. A security guard suffered the only other injury.

The Garland bomb squad sent its robot to investigate the shooters’ car to rule out a threat of explosives. It performed a disruption — a technique used to stop a dangerous device from doing what it was designed to do — to neutralize any potential threat.

Curtis Culwell was “without a doubt the hardest we’ve leaned on” the robots, said Lt. Brent Kemp, who oversees the bomb squad. “It was such an eye-opener. ... Time was on our side, but at the same time there were a lot of things we didn’t know.”

It takes about 10 years to get a new bomb tech fully trained, and it’s not easy, said Kemp, who has been on the team since 2006 and with the department for almost 18 years.

Potential techs complete 18 months of on-the-job training before they even make it to Huntsville, Alabama, for a six-week certification course at the FBI’s Hazardous Devices School, which includes a week devoted to robots.

Officer Robby Shreves is working as an assistant on the squad until there’s an opening for a technician.

While he waits, Shreves, who has been with the department since May 2014, is learning all he can.

“I’m trying to gather collectively 45 years of bomb experience,” he said. “It can be overwhelming, but they’re all good about showing me step by step.”

Occasionally, suspicious packages turn out to be a pipe bomb; other times, they are orders that shoppers forgot they purchased. (Those cases Kemp jokingly refers to as “Primenesia.”)

“We can take a real quick picture and say, ‘Ah, you know it’s high heels,’” he said.

The robots can help provide a connection in stressful situations. That’s especially important with a barricaded person, where face-to-face contact can be dangerous.

“They want separation between you and them,” Kemp said. The robots can open a line of communication and be a source for “that personal interaction that pretty much everybody needs.”

The stressful job can also be gratifying.

“People call you 50 miles away, and they have this issue only you can deal with,” Kemp said. “Usually, when we leave everybody’s happy, everybody’s got a smile on their face. That’s fairly rewarding. We don’t always get that.”

When Garland’s bomb squad began taking shape in the early 1970s, there were no robots. But after Sept. 11, 2001, more federal money flowed toward local policing, including funding that has helped buy robots, he said.

The department’s three current robots are its first, but in the fall the squad will be getting a new one to replace the bulkier F5A model.

The Remotec Andros FX is like the Cadillac of bomb robots, with an upgraded screen to aid depth perception and improve maneuverability. Though pricey, close to $300,000, it’s worth it, Kemp said.

“It’s expensive, but what’s that compared to a life?” he said. “If you could spend that kind of money on something that keeps everybody safe for 10-15 years, you know, I’m all for it.”

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Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

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