Robot carrying bomb used for first time in American policing

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AUSTIN (KXAN/AP) – A veteran counter terrorism and security expert says the way Dallas police bomb squad officers killed the suspected shooter in Thursday’s downtown attacks on police was a natural evolution of military style tactics used by U.S. combat soldiers and marines overseas.

“What you’re seeing is technology that’s been developed primarily on the battlefield… So it’s a positive step,” says Fred Burton, an analyst at Austin-based geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor. “You look at the number of cops this shooter had killed along with the number he had injured, to include civilians. These are tough calls.”

Dallas police say the suspect died after police moved an explosive device mounted on a robot toward his position after hours of negotiations. Earlier, five law enforcement officers died, with seven wounded in the ambush-style shooting attack at the end of an otherwise peaceful protest into recent police-involved shootings.

Austin police bomb squad on Gantry Drive in Pflugerville, responding to suspicious package on June 9, 2016 (KXAN Photo)

“I’m not aware of police using a robotic in this kind of — if you want to say — an offensive capacity to neutralize a suspect,” Burton told KXAN’s Robert Maxwell.

Burton’s opinion was echoed in a tweet Friday from a warfare strategist at the New America Foundation. Peter Singer also wrote the device he’s familiar with is called a Marcbot, used by troops in Iraq to flush out the enemy. It’s described in various articles as a robot on tracks with a small IED attached by a clamp arm.

So could a robot bomb be used in Austin? The city’s police chief didn’t mince words Friday afternoon.

“I’m not going to talk tactics. Nothing would be off the table to address a serious threat,” said Chief Art Acevedo during a news conference.

Burton won’t play armchair quarterback, but says “They needed to stop the carnage [in Dallas], and if this was tactically the best way for that to happen, so be it.”

Robots move from the battlefield to city streets

Police have been using such robots for decades for bomb disposal and in hostage standoffs and fires. Meanwhile, militaries around the world have come to rely on their robotic friends to disable improvised explosive devices – a need that only increased with the U.S. occupation of Iraq in the past decade.

The robots working for police departments across the country range in size from something as small as a dog bone to as large as a truck. Some are little more than a mechanical arm mounted onto a vehicle and equipped with a video camera and two-way audio communications, according to William Flanagan, a retired deputy police chief from New York’s Nassau County who now does law enforcement and technology consulting. The most versatile robots can climb stairs and navigate other tight spots, such as this one made by Icor Technology.

Many models used by police are about the size of a backpack.

William Cohen, a former Exponent employee who helped design the MARCbot, said that robot was built to save lives instead of ending them. Although he was relieved the killing of the armed suspect in Dallas assured no other police officers or bystanders would be harmed, Cohen says he’s worried about what might happen next.

“I am very uneasy about it,” Cohen said. “It opens a whole new set of questions of how to deal with these kinds of situations. Where are the police going to draw the line when trying to decide between continuing to negotiate and doing something like this?”

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