Following a backlash from the community, the New York Police Department cancelled their trial of a robot dog to assist police officers in tense situations. Their four-legged friend, named Digidog, will return to its manufacturer. However, there’s little chance he’ll be put to sleep, as robotic dogs have proven their worth in a variety of industries.
Police Team Newbie: Digidog
The New York Police Department (NYPD) introduced a robot dog, called Digidog, to the team late last year. At the time, Inspector Frank Digiacomo said that their newest team member was well equipped to “save lives, protect people and protect officers”. The robotic canine allows police officers to have ears and eyes on the ground, without putting themselves in the line of fire.
Digidog’s capabilities are impressive indeed. Weighing in at 70 pounds (30 kg), he can run 3.5 miles per hour (5.6 km/h), climb stairs, see in the dark, collect data and navigate through complex environments. All this, thanks to its cameras and lights, artificial intelligence (AI), and a two-way communication system. In February, the manufacturer released the Spot Arm. This robotic arm allows Digidog to open doors, carry small cargo and move objects, for example.
Police departments have been using robots since the 1970’s to save lives in hostage situations and and in incidents involving hazardous materials. Digidog was being tested to evaluate its capabilities against other robot models in use by the Emergency Service Unit and the Bomb Squad Unit. The canine was deployed a number of times by the NYPD. Including during a home invasion, a domestic dispute, and a hostage situation.
High-Tec Beast Stirs Privacy Concerns
Alas, Digidog caused a stir in the city. This was after images of the police dog’s deployment started circulating on social media. Consequently, the “RoboCop dog” became the target of sharp criticism. People made comparisons to scenes from dystopian movies where machines rule the world. The robotic dog was seen as a tool for increased surveillance, rather than the police’s little helper.
Others also critiqued the government’s misplaced priorities. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, whose district includes the Bronx, was not impressed by the way public resources were being utilized. She tweeted: “Please ask yourself: when was the last time you saw next-generation, world-class technology for education, healthcare, housing, etc. consistently prioritized for underserved communities like this?”
Lastly, people questioned whether a robotic dog would fit in the current culture of police reform. “It’s creepy, alienating and sends the wrong message to New Yorkers”, a mayoral spokesman, Bill Neidhardt, told the New York Times. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, analyzed the pros and cons. He concluded that “it’s important that there be public conversations every step of the way.” And added that “none of those conversations can happen without transparency and independent oversight”.
Robotic Dog Returned to Its Kennel
Ultimately, the NYPD decided to part ways with Digidog. They canceled the $75,000 contract four months early and have returned their four-legged friend to its owner, Boston Dynamics. Professor Marc Raibert founded this engineering and robotics design company in 1992, as a spin-off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Since December 2020, it is owned by the Hyundai Motor Group.
Digidog’s dad, Spot, born on 23 June 2016, was the first commercially available robot from Boston Dynamics. Worldwide, there are approximately 500 Spot units in the field. Most of them are being deployed in commercial and industrial settings. A leading Australian Energy Company, Woodside, for example, started using Spot for routine inspections on potentially hazardous sites. While a large contractor, Brasfield & Gorrie, integrated Spot with DroneDeploy to document jobsites.
Only four Spot units were given a “forever home” in police departments. Boston Dynamic explains that police and fire departments can use robot dogs to remotely evaluate potentially dangerous situations. “We believe that our robots can be used to keep first responders and the public safe.” In addition, Boston Dynamics’ Terms and Conditions prohibit the use of Spot to harm or intimidate people or animals. These terms also require compliance with all applicable laws, including privacy laws.