NYPD retires big, egg-shaped subway surveillance robot—for now

Commuters navigating busy downtown New York subway stations will now do so without a roughly 400-pound autonomous robot lurking nearby. After a nearly six-month trial, the New York Police Department ends use of eye-catching “K5” mobile surveillance robot, once touted by city officials as a high-tech, low-cost solution work to deter crime. Many New Yorkers and privacy advocates made fun of a strange egg-shaped robot, which some said felt more like an expensive, eye-catching gimmick than a meaningful security investment. The K5 may no longer be available at the moment, although city officials do not rule out its redeployment in the future.

A spokesperson for New York's Deputy Commissioner of Public Information said PopSci that the controversial robot manufactured by the company Knightscope had “completed its pilot deployment in the New York subway”. As of last week, they were no longer deployed in transit. A journalist at The New York Times spotted the robot parked, all alone, in a vacant storefront. A separate New York Daily News report citing a spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams' administration revealed that the robot had actually been in storage since early December.

Why the NYPD used the robot

Knightscope describe its K5 as a “fully autonomous” security robot equipped with four cameras capable of recording video but not audio. The robot can reach a maximum speed of 3 miles per hour and has a 360-degree range of motion. He can't climb the stairs. Hospitals, warehouses, shopping centers and other private businesses have turned to the K5 in recent years to patrol and inspect their premises. Adams initially defended the K5 last year for its alleged ability to patrol for long hours without needing rest.

“It’s below minimum wage,” Adams said at a news conference last year. “No bathroom breaks, no meal breaks.” New York Police would have paid $9 an hour to rent the K5. In total, the K5 pilot program would have cost the NYPD $12,250.

When Adams announced the New York Police Department's use of the K5 last year, he said the robot would patrol the subway late at night, between midnight and 6 a.m. In practice, however, it is unclear how often the robot actually made these rounds. In addition to filming travelers, Adams and the New York Police Department said the K5 also has a button that connects people to a live network. representative via an array of 16 microphones who can answer questions or report a potentially concerning incident. It's unclear whether the K5's short stint on the metro had a significant impact on crime or safety.

On his website, Knightscope says its technologies are “known to be effective in reducing crime.” In reality, the imposing egg-shaped robot has received more attention for attracting selfies than for its surreptitious surveillance. A security guard named Kelvin Caines recently said The New York Times NYPD officers 'would never let him [the robot] do anything.” He claimed to have rarely seen the K5 separated from its cargo section. The K5 was also regularly seen with a chaperone officer at its side, in part to prevent the robot from being vandalized. This human overseer prevented the K5 from truly fulfilling its “autonomous” purpose.

Stacy Stephens, Chief Customer Officer at Knightscope, said PopSci The company was unable to discuss specific details regarding its relationship with the NYPD, although it disputed previous reports suggesting the NYPD had permanently retired the robot. A spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams' administration told theTimes this is to “examine options for the next deployment of the K5 as part of the pilot project”.

Police robots spark public backlash

This would not be the first time that New York has turned away from a robot only to redeploy it later. In 2021, the The NYPD cut short its contract with robotics company Boston Dynamics following a wave of public backlash to the department's use of its dog-shaped robot “Spot.” New York Police reintroduced several Spot robots two years later with the aim of deploying them in areas too dangerous for police or firefighters to access.

Privacy and civil liberties groups were skeptical of the K5 robot from the start, with some calling it both a privacy risk and a waste of resources. Some organizations, like the New York-based Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), were concerned that the real-time images collected by the K5 could be integrated into existing facial recognition systems. These types of facial recognition systems, which We are notorious for having difficulty accurately identifying non-white peopleled to wrongful arrest of at least seven people in the United States in recent years, almost all of whom were black.

“I said it was a trash can on wheels, but it looks like the wheels don't even work at this point,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Monitoring Project. statement. “When major crimes are down and the mayor is imposing budget cuts on city agencies, why are we spending so much money on these gadgets?

Shane Ferro, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society's digital forensics unit, agrees with that assessment.

“The Adams administration continues to be distracted by false claims of high-tech solutions to age-old problems,” Ferro said in a statement. “The NYPD subway robot is an unnecessary expense and a public gimmick that serves no legitimate security purpose.”

Police robots and drones gain ground despite public apprehension

The New York Police Department has stepped up its use of robots, drones, facial recognition detection toolsand other controversial police technologies since Adams took office, even as other cities like Boston voted to ban similar tools. In total, New York would have spent nearly $3 billion in drones, robots and other surveillance tools between 2007 and 2019. Adams is not alone in adopting new technologies, either. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a California-based civil liberties organization, estimates More than 1,400 police departments in the United States currently use drones in one form or another. The Spot robot from Boston Dynamics, for its part, has would have have been deployed on the ground by law enforcement in Houston, Los Angeles and St. Petersburg, Florida, in recent years.

Physical police robots, more than other forms of new policing technology, often receive backlash from local residents and community leaders who fear they will be misused or even armed with weapons. It's not completely out of the realm of possibility. In 2016, Dallas police attached an explosive device to a Remotec Andros Mark V-A1 robot and detonated it to kill an armed suspect. Most recently, San Francisco officials approved a policy that would allow police to use remote-controlled robots to kill suspects, only to reverse the policy following a torrent of public dissent.

For now at least, it looks like New York won't have police robots roaming its subways. Overall trends in policing, however, suggest that robots assisting police may become more common over time.

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