New K-9, $300K robot join APD bomb squad

Austin

The next time the Austin Police Department’s bomb squad goes out on a call, officers will have a new tool to take with them. The unit’s new robot just came in and went on its first call over the weekend.

It arrived about the same time as the department’s new, still-nameless K-9 officer, about seven weeks after the Austin bomber blew himself up, ending a weeks-long saga of destruction no one in the squad expected to face.

The new bomb-sniffing dog has an important job to do, but he’s still a friendly, energetic addition to a unit that could use a lift after what officers endured in March. 

           “There was no one getting sleep during that time,” said Lt. Courtney Renfro, the special operations division’s commanding officer. “You would go home to get some rest and your mind wouldn’t stop. You know, you would be waiting, ‘When’s the next one going to hit? And who’s it going to hurt? What are we going to do?'”

It wasn’t until the second bomb that Renfro and his unit realized what they were up against. “Our stomachs sank,” he said. At that point, the unit started going nonstop, and Renfro had to keep an eye on all of his officers to make sure they were eating, drinking water and sleeping. “There was times when I would ask them to go lay down in their car and rest for a while, while we handled the scene, just so they would get a little bit of rest.”

Operators used the old robot at every scene to assess danger and to start collecting evidence. The tool that helped them recognize the similarities in components that led them to determine the bombs were made by the same person, Renfro said.

The new, $300,000-plus machine is an upgrade in every sense, from the way it moves to the way it sees. Equipped with five cameras that include infrared and thermal-imaging capabilities, the robot can climb tall stairs and move its retractable arm more like a human’s. 

Even more striking is the robot can be operated with a standard Xbox controller. Technicians took 40-hour training courses to learn the new machine and finally took it out on a call over the weekend to Hays County to dispose of old dynamite.

As the new K-9 finishes up his training, he’ll be headed out on calls to help determine the danger. The bomb squad is still getting plenty of calls for suspicious packages, about one per day, Renfro said.

During the bombings, the unit went to about 350 of the thousands of suspicious package calls, he said. Those were the ones patrol officers determined were potentially dangerous, and the responses came on top of working every bombing scene.

“My bomb technicians and K-9s are heroes in my mind,” Renfro said. “They handled this with the utmost professionalism and technical experience that one could imagine. And it’s over, and I’m glad it’s over.”

Almost seven weeks after it ended, with the bomber detonating his last device as the bomb squad looked on, the unit’s leader is still keeping an eye on his troops.

“They all seem to be doing very well. They’ve all gotten rest, they’re all back to work training and keeping on keeping on, and they’re ready for the next.”

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