A NYPD bomb disposal robot handles an unexploded pressure cooker bomb on Sept. 17, 2016 on West 27th Street in New York City. Credit: Lucien Harriot/Getty Images

A bomb-sniffing robot was destroyed in the line of duty today as it was cutting a wire on an explosive device in a New Jersey train station, authorities said. It's another example of how important these modern-day Robo-cops have become in fighting terrorism and crime across the nation.

Last week, a bomb-disposal robot grabbed the gun of a murder suspect in Southern California. In June, the Dallas Police Department attached a bomb to a robot, drove it into a parking garage, and then detonated it, killing the suspect who had just shot and killed five police officers during a downtown protest march.

"What we are seeing lately is some experimentation about how they can be used," said Dan Gettinger, co-director for the Bard College Center for the Study of the Drone. "The sensors on board these unmanned ground vehicles are improving. The camera quality has improved. The dexterity has improved. They have become lighter and more portable."

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A recent study by the Bard Center found more than 1,000 ground-based autonomous vehicles, mostly bomb-detecting robots, have been transferred from the Pentagon to local police forces in recent years. In addition to bigger devices that can detonate a bomb, there are smaller, throwable bots that can be used to give live video feeds of a suspect's hideout.

Bomb-disposal robots now have the capability of destroying an explosive device remotely, explained Jonathan Lesser, senior vice president for marketing at Endeavor Robotics, which manufacturers several models for the military and domestic police forces.

These robots fire an inert slug or a jet of high pressure water that can penetrate clothing, a backpack or the bomb's container to destroy the firing mechanism without creating a spark or an electromagnetic release, Lesser said.

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Other robots are designed to physically remove a suspect object and detonate it further away. Lesser said the robot early Monday may have been performing a controlled explosion and it wasn't far enough away.

Robots now have more sophisticated sensor packages to detect explosive material or toxic chemicals. They are also being programmed with more autonomous decision-making algorithms that allow them to perform several tasks at once, Lesser said.

"A robot would detect what it is, then user can manage the risk," Lesser said.

In the future, we're likely to see improvement in how police are able to control these robots, according to Howie Choset, professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute.

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That could include some kind of virtual reality environment that allows for greater user awareness, or perhaps a haptic glove for greater remote sensory perception.

I would like to see what these robots can do with very little additional cost in technology," Choset said. "You can create three-dimensional maps of the environment and the user can fly through those maps, like "The Matrix."

He also sees a time when the joystick controller, which has become ubiquitous in human-robot interfaces, is replaced by something else. Instead of controlling the joystick with your hand, the user would click on an image and the robot arm goes to where it wants.

While improvements might be better or more efficient, Choset says that sometimes change is difficult for humans.

"Would the users embrace the technology?" he asked. "People are very used to their own stuff."

Endeavor Robotics president Tom Frost said that the fact that the robot in New Jersey exploded means that it did its job. The firm has one of its devices sent back from Iraq in tiny pieces.

"That is a robot that went down and there wasn't a warfighter that went down," Frost said. "We consider that success."

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