The next time you visit a mall, airport or sports arena, don’t be alarmed if you cross paths with a roving sentinel that resembles a character from Disney’s Wall-E. Autonomous robots are stepping out in the world, moving beyond their factory jobs to take on physical security thanks to a handful of high-tech startup firms.
“We are seeing record growth of business startups that are developing robots,” Andra Keay, managing director of the nonprofit Silicon Valley Robotics, told the LA Times. “There was a separation between areas that can be automated and areas that can’t — that is changing.”
One California-based firm, Knightscope, offers security robots for both indoor and outdoor uses. Partnering with major guard services firms such as Allied Universal and Securitas, the company has contracted out nearly 50 robots for use in shopping centers, hospitals, stadiums and corporate campuses. It’s also looking to make inroads in other markets, including schools, airports, government agencies and neighborhoods.
Autonomous Security Robot Capabilities
Autonomous security robots combine three leading-edge technologies: robotics, artificial intelligence and self-driving capability. What separates them from their human counterparts?
These watchmen on wheels – some stand at more than five-feet high – use advanced surveillance technology to capture, stream and store 360-degree video footage. They detect humans, read license plates (300 per minute, according to Knightscope), offer two-way audio, communicate pre-recorded messages, conduct thermal imaging to monitor the surrounding temperature, and can identify mobile devices in the vicinity. Sensors allow them to navigate while steering clear of obstacles, and GPS technologies enable them to know their location at all times. And, if they detect criminal activity, they can sound an alarm and quickly communicate with central security forces.
What can’t they do? Current U.S. models don’t move very fast – Knightscope robots top out at 3 mph – so chasing after the bad guys is out. They don’t carry weapons – at least in the U.S. – and can’t detain criminals. One airport security robot in China, however, is armed with a Taser gun and travels up to 11 mph.
Overall, the manufacturers tout security robots not as a replacement for human security guards, but a supplement. “This is not for enforcement,” said William Santana Li, chairman and CEO of Knightscope. “It’s for monitoring and giving an understanding of the situation for those humans to do their jobs much more effectively.”
In fact, human security guards constantly monitor robot video feed in an on-site control room. In an emergency, a security guard can speak through the robot to alert nearby humans.
Autonomous Security Robot Pros and Cons
As security robots gain in popularity, clients will have to weigh the pros and cons of replacing human guards versus supplementing their capabilities. Manufacturers, including Robotic Assistance Devices, and security firm partners typically rent robots to clients at $7 to $10 per hour under a long-term subscription. Robots don’t require wages, benefits, food, sleep and other accommodations that humans need, which can translate into potential cost savings.
Security customers are often looking for a better way. Lew Pincus, CEO of Gamma 2 Robotics, listened to his clients’ concerns and feels security robots can transform physical security. “I thought of it in terms of how robotics could stabilize turnover and reduce things like…some of the HR headaches people experience, such as slip-and-fall claims and OSHA reporting.”
Mark McCourt, Allied Universal’s vice president of enterprise services, shared his view on where robots will fit into the picture. “The first jobs to be replaced will be non-sensitive positions, such as the graveyard shift,” he said. Eventually, robots may fill positions that he calls “the three Ds” — dull, dangerous and dirty.
As with any up-and-coming technology, early mishaps can sometimes get in the way of a full-blown rollout. Two years ago, a Knightscope K5 model accidently knocked over a toddler in a Stanford, California, mall. Just last year, another mall security robot ended up “drowning” in a Washington, D.C. shopping area’s water feature.
Privacy rights advocates are also sharing their concerns. As security robots become more commonplace in public areas, regulators may want to enact controls over their data collection capabilities and their overall functionality. In a recent case in San Francisco, for example, pedestrian complaints prompted the Department of Public Works to order the local SPCA to stop using its security robot on sidewalks near its campus without a proper permit.
“These things move. They are new. You’re not used to them. And people don’t know how they’re being used and what kind of guardrails or limitations are on them and on the data these devices are collecting,” said Nuala O’Connor, president of the Center for Democracy & Technology, in a McClatchy story.
No doubt, the debate will continue as humans define what role robots can and should play in society.