Your move, creep: Researchers building RoboCop policeman

Florida International University is trying to build a remote-operated law enforcement robot that will be controlled by disabled police officers. Would you like a bot on the beat?

Tough guy: An early design sketch for the patrol robot. Florida International University

You've double-parked your car to pick something up when a robot rolls up and threatens to give you a ticket. You might laugh, but the thing's talking with a human voice.

Researchers at Florida International University's Discovery Lab are working with a member of the U.S. Navy Reserves to build telepresence robots that could patrol while being controlled by disabled police officers and military vets. In a sense, they would be hybrid man-machine cops, like RoboCop.

Lieutenant Commander Jeremy Robins has given $20,000 to the lab and borrowed two robots valued at nearly $500,000 from the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC) to realize his vision of bringing some of the thousands of disabled cops and soldiers in the U.S. back to the workforce.

They would work as patrol officers, operating wheeled telepresence robots and doing everything from responding to 911 calls and writing parking tickets to ensuring the security of nuclear facilities. The cybercops would have to be rugged enough to work outdoors, but what would they look like?

"The big design hurdle we face is, strangely enough, the exact same hurdle police officers face with the public every day," Robins says.

"The telebot has to look intimidating and authoritative enough so that people obey its commands -- because of course it's not the telebot telling you what to do, it's the disabled police officer controlling the telebot who's telling you what to do.

"On the flip side, it has to be approachable enough so that a lost 3-year-old feels comfortable coming up to the telebot and asking for help finding her mother. That's a challenging design problem, and one which I'm sure will take many iterations before we get it perfectly right."

RoboCop
The 1987 sci-fi classic "RoboCop " posited a cyborg policeman. Orion Pictures

Students and professors at the Discovery Lab have been working with the two-wheeled, military-grade IHMC robots built under a $2 million DARPA initiative. The patrol bot prototype, which will have two-way video and audio, will be based on them. Robins is also trying to get NASA to help out with its Robonaut tech.

Remote-controlled robots are already used in military, medical, and business applications, and the lab believes law enforcement is a natural next step. The legal implications related to police behavior, however, would likely be a major hurdle to deployment. For instance, would roving robots be seen as glorified security cams on wheels, or more like substitutes for human officers?

I'll bet the patrol bots get deluged with one-liner requests: "Dead or alive, you're coming with me."

 

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