Despite widespread public outrage at police departments’ use of Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot, law enforcement agencies continue to look for ways to experiment with the headless, quadrupedal machine.
One of the more creative examples comes from Honolulu, where police spent more than $150,000 in COVID-19 relief funding to purchase a Spot robot to take body temperatures, disinfect, and patrol the city’s homeless quarantine encampment.
Honolulu is one of four police departments to purchase or lease a Spot robot—the Massachusetts State Police, New York City Police Department (which recently returned the robots), and the Dutch National Police, which purchased one of the machines in April.
The purchase of the robot by the Honolulu Police Department (HPD), first reported by Honolulu Civil Beat, was one of several expensive purchases the department made for the encampment that angered Honolulu residents who felt the money could be better spent elsewhere.
During a January city council meeting, HPD officials attempted to “vindicate ourselves for some of the bad press.” They claimed that Spot would actually save the department money because it would reduce the need for more manpower and equipment, and that the robot allowed the department to keep operating a successful street-to-shelter program despite the pandemic.
Lt. Mike Lambert added that because the robot’s thermal cameras can detect body temperature from eight feet away, and it can move over rugged terrain, Spot would reduce the risk of officer exposure to COVID-19.
“To put a price tag on a possible exposure to the officers and their families—$150,000 I wouldn’t put that price on anybody, not one of the homeless people, one of the social workers, or one of the officers,” he told the council.
In an emailed statement, Boston Dynamics told Motherboard that it approves of HPD’s use of its robot in these instances. “Spot is not designed or intended to replace a police officer or social worker but rather to augment the work of public safety officials and police departments to reduce risks and increase safety for all people,” a Boston Dynamics spokesperson wrote. “Spot was under the control of a human operator and used to remove humans from potentially hazardous environments [in Honolulu].”
One of the main justifications Lambert and other HPD officials made for the purchase was that the robot could be used for an apparently unlimited number of tasks after the pandemic. Lambert’s slide presentation to the council also suggested using the robot for “remote encampment outreach” and “de-escalation.” He did not provide any explanation of how the robot would perform those tasks.
“The ideas you can come up with would be endless as far as its future potential use beyond the pandemic,” Lambert said. He suggested using the robot to enforce social distancing on city streets and conduct search-and-rescue operations.
The only question the city council asked of HPD was whether the robot could be used to crack down on Honolulu’s fireworks problem.
“I would not think it beyond reason—you could send this technology into a neighborhood to either give you a visual perspective of what’s occurring in a neighborhood to detect explosions in the air,” Lambert said. “That’s not beyond reason. Or capture people lighting them, capture people actually lighting the fireworks.”
Concerns about the use of a semi-autonomous robot to surveil communities prompted the New York City Police Department to end its use of Spot robots.
Honolulu police did not respond to requests for comment. Motherboard has submitted a public records request for documentation of the HPD’s use of the robot since January.