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Robot security guards: can they keep us safe?


Almost 30 years since Robocop hit our screens, robot security guards like Knightscope’s K5 could be about to transform the security industry.


Anthony Calvert

ED-209 Enforcement Droid: [menacingly] Please put down your weapon. You have 20 seconds to comply.

Almost 30 years since Robocop hit our screens, robot security guards could be about to transform the security industry. But unlike the gun-toting robots of the movies, these real-life robo-guards are equipped not with weapons but with an arsenal of cameras and security sensors.

The latest to hit the market is Knightscope’s 1.5-metre-tall, 136-kilogram K5 security robot. With looks that are half -Dalek, half fridge-freezer, the K5 manages to be simultaneously cute and imposing. Its R2D2-esque little brother, the K3, is smaller and more manoeuvrable for indoor environments. The robots will autonomously patrol a designated circuit and signal an alarm if they detect any suspicious activity.

Knightscope isn’t the first robotics company to try to muscle in on the security business. “Robot security guards have actually been on offer for a surprisingly long time,” says Paul Pounds, a research engineer at the University of Queensland. In the early 2000s, Japanese firm Tmsuk developed a range of robo-guards, including their Banryu guard dog. But these early incarnations lacked the smarts to reliably and autonomously patrol a beat, and never made an impact.

The K5, in comparison, navigates just like a driverless car, using LIDAR (light detection and ranging) to bounce laser light off of its surroundings to map out its 3-D environment and avoid obstacles. Mapping software ensures K5 doesn’t stray beyond its patrol perimeter. K5, which has been under development for more than three years, has logged more than 35,000 hours of testing, autonomously patrolling shopping centres, car parks and factories across California. The robots have already been sent on patrol at Microsoft and Uber.

The K5 is equipped with so many sensors – almost 30, all told – it amasses security data at a rate of 90 terabytes a year. Its 360-degree vision means it literally has eyes in the back of its head, while its infra-red camera gives it night vision. It can read licence plates (up to 300 per minute) and check them against a blacklisted database. K5 can also call an alarm if it hears a suspiciously large bang, sees a flash or smells smoke.

Knightscope maintains they’re not out to put security guards out of work, just to take the drudgery out of the routine patrol beat – leaving strategic decisions to humans in a control room. Without any ability to intervene in a crime, the company bills its robots as “Autonomous Data Machines” – more a smart security camera on wheels than a security guard.

But the K5’s constant video and microphone feed has generated controversy. Jeramie Scott, a national security fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Centre in Washington, DC, has warned that the K5 “could become like a cuter, less aggressive Terminator that kills privacy instead of people”.

Meanwhile, K5’s agility has also been questioned. On one of its first big jobs patrolling a shopping centre in Palo Alto, K5 collided with a 16-month-old toddler, leaving the boy with a bruised foot – though whether robot ran into child or child ran into robot is a matter of dispute.

Teething issues notwithstanding, the brothers Knightscope are the first in a new generation of robot security guards that might turn the security industry on its head. Colorado-based Gamma 2 Robotics has RAMSEE, a similar style of security robot to K5. Japan’s Sharp Corporation has its Autonomous Unmanned Ground Vehicle (A-UGV), a squat, four-wheeled droid that looks a bit like a bomb disposal bot on patrol. And for even more rugged outdoor terrain, there’s SMP Robotics’ Rover S5, designed for tasks such as patrolling the perimeter fencing of power plants. All three are billed for release in 2017.

But K5’s real competition is in the air, says Pounds. “Security drones have the advantage of moving faster, covering more ground, and being out of reach of people on the ground.” And unlike ground-based security bots – even Robocop’s fictional ED-209 – flying drones won’t be stopped by a simple flight of stairs.

Anthony Calvert

K5 specifications

Height: 1.5 metres
Weight: 136 kilograms
Cost: US$7 an hour to rent (or about $60,000 per year)
Battery life: Two to three hours, then dock and charge for 20 minutes (though it keeps working through the ‘coffee break’ period)
Patrol speed: 2-5 kilometres per hour
Top speed: 29 kilometres per hour
Data collection: 90 terabytes per year

Vision

Multiple high-definition cameras give the K5 360-degree vision. Licence-plate recognition, face recognition and moving object avoidance can all be simultaneously performed. As well as visible light cameras, the K5 also boasts thermal imaging and infrared cameras.

Navigation

Light detection and ranging (LIDAR) emits laser that sweeps 270-degrees to map its surroundings and identify obstacles in its path.

Other senses

Four microphones to capture audio, temperature sensors and air-quality sensors to detect smoke or elevated CO2 that might indicate a fire.

Communication

Broadcast-capability two-way radio with public address and intercom.


See the K5 in action here:


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Cathal O'Connell is a science writer based in Melbourne.
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