The Manassas City Council frequently has visitors at its meetings, but an unexpected guest last month so excited Councilman Ian Lovejoy that he took pictures and posted them to Facebook while he was still sitting at the dais.
“My eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas,” Lovejoy (R) recalled last week.
The visitor, on the other hand, displayed no such human emotion. But that’s because it wasn’t human.
The object of the councilman’s interest was a tactical robot for the Manassas police, a high-tech crime fighter designed to go into dangerous places so flesh-and-blood law enforcement officers don’t have to. The police obtained the robot in October with the help of a nonprofit organization, but the device had a public debut of sorts at the March 27 council meeting.
As Lovejoy spent the past few months waiting to see the electronic gizmo up close, the 14 police officers on Manassas’s SWAT team were busy learning how to use it.
The remote-controlled robot is black and small enough to fit into a large backpack. It moves on treads as a tank or bulldozer does, and it’s equipped with two cameras that allow the operator to conduct surveillance from afar. The device also can pick up sound, and police can broadcast audio from it.
The idea is that authorities send the robot into a building where armed assailants might be to see whether officers can safely enter, or, for instance, deploy it near a dwelling where hostages are being held.
The procedure replaces the old-fashioned method of entering a high-risk situation and hoping for the best, Manassas police Lt. Steven Neely said.
“It limits the amount of exposure the officers have,” he said.
The robot also can record video with its cameras, and it’s sturdy. An officer could throw it through the open window of a building and then use the remote control to turn it upright and begin looking around, Neely said.
The gadget is not bulletproof, but it can take a lot of punishment. Similarly, it’s not waterproof, but it is water-resistant.
So far, Manassas officers have used the robot while serving search and arrest warrants in situations that could have been dangerous.
The model the Manassas police have was made by a company called RoboteX that was founded by former employees of PayPal and YouTube. The Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation, affiliated with the sandwich chain, awarded the department a grant to obtain the device, valued at $26,300.
It was a sizable addition to the small law enforcement agency, Neely said.
The Prince William police own similar robots, county Sgt. Jonathan Perok said, but Manassas Park’s police department doesn’t. Manassas Park Capt. Trevor Reinhart said the city’s force would use a robot from one of its neighboring departments if it needed one.
Most large police departments around the nation have robots, said Mark Lomax, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, a Doylestown, Pa., nonprofit organization that represents SWAT teams and other law enforcement specialists.
Lomax said the battery-powered helpers were first used mainly for bomb disposal. However, their capabilities have increased with technology, he said, a testament to how electronics have improved police work.
He joked that the “robots” that were used when he got into law enforcement in 1981 were rookie officers who were prodded into investigating precarious situations (“You go check it out,” their older colleagues would say).
“So, yeah, it’s much safer now,” he said.