Earlier this year, reports emerged that Devon and Cornwall Police are launching the first 24-hour police drone unit in the UK. With falling police numbers in the UK, and cuts to funding, this news may be just the beginning in a new era of law enforcement. 21 other forces are already experimenting with drone technology to carry out duties from everyday search missions to security surveillance on Royal outings.
Cheaper than helicopters, and able to perform some of the same tasks as officers themselves, police drones may be just one avenue of technology coming to policing in the very near future. One helicopter flight currently costs, on average, £1,266. A drone, on the other hand, can be purchased for around £1,000, with minimal running costs beyond the obvious need to charge.
However, the move has prompted inevitable questions regarding privacy, as well as concerns over whether the intention is to reduce numbers of human police to keep costs low. Of course, the hope is that employing drones for certain tasks will be a move to more efficient policing, allowing officers to concentrate on other necessary duties, thus freeing up resources.
Drone footage has already been used in court proceedings, more for visualisation of a crime scene for jurors than of crimes themselves at this point. But could this be taken further without privacy implications for the general public? That’s up for debate.
For a great rundown of the pros and cons of drones in law enforcement, check out this article by Drone Guru.
Drones, nonetheless, are not the only technology finding its way into law enforcement. In Dubai, the first robot police officer has already been revealed, charged with the task of patrolling malls and tourist attractions in the city. It will be used to report crimes, to pay parking fines, and to gain local information through the use of a touch screen on the robot’s chest. Data collected by the ‘Robocop’ will also be used to inform transport and traffic authorities.
“It can protect people from crime because it can broadcast what is happening right away to our command and control centre,” director general of smart services at Dubai Police, Brig Khalid Al Razooqi, told the BBC.
Dubai has announced plans to make 25% of its police force robotic by 2030, with the caveat that they will not replace human officers, only add to their numbers.
In the US, law enforcement teams are taking the whole ‘Robocop’ thing one step further, as you might expect. The Robotics Business Review reportedin February 2017 of a case in Los Angeles where a robot was used to apprehend a suspect.
After a six hour standoff, cops sent in a robot to find out what was going on behind the suspect’s makeshift barricade. From a video feed recorded by the robot, police were able to seize their opportunity to advance, whilst the robot rolled in and grabbed the suspect’s weapon. Nobody was harmed, and the suspect was peacefully apprehended.
The driving factor behind the use of robots in law enforcement, according to Sgt. Brian Danielsof the West Covina Police Department, is officer safety. As well as their uses in apprehending suspects, robots in the form of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) can be used in marine situations. When retrieving bodies from plane or boat crashes, or other marine incidents, there are some underwater locations that are too dangerous for police divers to access. Robots can also be used to deliver mobile phones in hostage situations, and for scouting locations ahead of SWAT team deployment, as well as, of course, bomb disposal.
As for military uses, drones are coming hard and fast.
The US Department of Defence successfully demonstrated the deployment of an autonomous swarm of micro-drones in January 2017. These self-healing, decision-making drones fly in adaptive formation, and have the capacity to inflict serious damage whilst flying under enemy radar.
Tiny drones have been on the battlefield for several years now, such as the Black Hornet, which soldiers use to look over walls and around corners. The Black Hornet has been working in Afghanistan since 2013. It can currently fly for 25 minutes on one charge, with a digital data link to its terminal of up to one mile. It has also recently been augmented with night vision and infrared sensors. Though one of the most infamous military mini-drones, the battery life of the Black Hornet pales in comparison to that of the FULMAR, for example, which can hover for up to 12 hours.
As well as the capabilities of military drones, battery life is the key factor in how useful drones will be on the battlefield. The swarms of micro-drones trialled by the US Department of Defence are serious stuff, but if their batteries don’t last as long as necessary, they are basically useless.
Robots in Warfare
Robots, too, are obviously making their presence felt in the military space.
Robot soldiers could have a positive effect in terms of reducing the numbers of ground troops required in war zones. Autonomous robots are also being developed that use pattern-recognition algorithms to identify and attack targets, thus allowing the identification and destruction of wanted individuals on authorisation from remote human teams.
Then, there’s smaller robot warriors, such as the Guardian S snakebot, which works as an agile surveillance agent to conduct inspections in confined spaces or hazardous areas, help with search and rescue operations, and in assistance of SWAT teams and bomb squads.
The wealth of robots of all shapes and sizes being developed for warfare are too numerous to list here. Suffice to say, it’s big business.
Whilst we’ve taken a good look at the potential that drones and robots have in law enforcement and military applications, there is another side to the issue. And it’s one that is of significant concern to many tech experts and rights campaigners.
The notion of robots as unstoppable killing machines is a trope in popular culture that’s been around ever since Czech writer, Karel Čapek, introduced the word ‘robot’ into the popular consciousness with his play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) from 1920.
Stoked by the fires of technological advancement, the fear of robo-pocalypse is looming large in the minds of the general public now more than ever. This is, of course, exacerbated by Elon Musk’s insistence that robots will kill us all.
Nonetheless, these concerns do not arise from nowhere. The concern over autonomous vehicles in warfare and law enforcement raises salient points, points that are leading to experts such as Prof. Stephen Hawking (and, yes, Elon Musk) insisting on a ban. The risk that autonomous weapons, of which robots and drones play a large part, could fall into the wrong hands, be hacked, or malfunction in some way, is one that we should be taking deadly seriously. That being said, warfare has been evolving since the dawn of time… perhaps this is a simple progression, and we can only hope that the powers that be are taking safety as seriously as we all hope.
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