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State Police Count On Tech Arm of the Law

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2004; Page PW01

The youngest, smallest member of the Virginia State Police bomb squad can fearlessly pick up an unidentified bomb, or walk into a tense hostage situation and hand a cell phone to a gunman. And he requires no food, water, insurance benefits or sleep.

His name is Andros F6A. He's a $146,000 police robot assigned to the state police Northern Virginia division, one of eight robots purchased last year with state money and a grant from the Department of Homeland Security. One robot was placed in each of the state police's eight regional divisions, and the bomb squads have been training regularly with them for use in dangerous situations.

The Virginia State Police bomb squad has eight robots to detect and disable suspicious devices. Robots can also be used for surveillance and in hostage situations. Alexandria police use the same type of robot (pictured here). (Sgt. James Craige -- Alexandria Police)

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"It saves manpower and keeps our agents out of harm's way," said Sgt. Wallace L. Bouldin, a state police spokesman.

The robot is equipped with four cameras, a gripper arm that rotates 180 degrees, two-way audio systems and treads and wheels, which enable it to climb stairs, rough terrain and obstacles up to two feet high. Last month, state police used another Andros F6A to help track down a murder suspect in King and Queen County, southeast of Fredericksburg. The robot went into a house where the suspect was hiding and confirmed that he was in the attic. Police then fired tear gas to force him outside.

"And we can do it all by remote," said Senior Special Agent F.W. Scott of the state police bomb squad in Fairfax County. Scott said he is no video game veteran but has learned to master the robot's controls through plenty of practice.

"It's very responsive, as responsive as using a video game," Scott said. "You have to be very proficient."

The cameras on the robot enable bomb technicians to have a first look at a suspicious device without donning a heavy bomb suit and walking right up to what might be a ticking time bomb. Pipe bombs and other improvised explosives are among the most dangerous to diagnose and disarm, Scott said, and the robot's gripper arm can be used to pick up a device and turn or move it. The robot cannot snip the red wire or the blue wire, as tense bomb technicians often do in the movies, but "it has a way of rendering safe a suspected [improvised explosive device]," Scott said.

A shotgun -- either to fire 12-gauge rounds or tear gas shells -- also can be placed on the robot, police said. And it can carry a cellular phone into a hostage situation so negotiators can communicate with a hostage-taker, Scott said. "We can send it out to pick up whatever we need," he said.

The robot, which weighs about 600 pounds, was made by Remotec Inc., a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman Corp. Police in Alexandria and Fairfax County also have similar robots. Both Alexandria and Fairfax have used the robots recently in domestic violence situations in which the robot entered a home and confirmed that a person had committed suicide.

Scott noted that because the robot is only three feet wide, it can navigate through doors and tight passageways. He declined to give any examples of how the robot has been used in Northern Virginia. But another state police robot was used in Chesterfield County last month, south of Richmond, to remove a suspicious box from a DuPont fibers and fabric plant and determine that it did not contain explosives, as threatened.

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