Robots Fight NY/NJ Terror Bombs

More and more, police are relying on robots to defuse explosives, grab weapons and kill suspects.

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."

SEE PHOTOS: Robots to the Rescue!

style="text-align: left;">Robots and drones get a bad rap sometimes, but there's an entire industry out there designing bots and UAVs specifically designed to save human lives. Here we take a look at some of these machines, including Boston Dynamics' BigDog robot -- pictured above. Like a hydraulic St. Bernard, the robot can deliver emergency supplies to remote or hazardous areas over rough terrain.

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style="text-align: left;">Toshiba's custom-designed two-arm underwater robot was constructed for the express purpose of removing debris and fuel rods from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, destroyed by an earthquake in March of 2011.

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style="text-align: left;">Drone Systems' Scout UAS is designed to be used by the first arriving units in emergency situations. It can be deployed in under two minutes to provide aerial view of disasters or wildfires.

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style="text-align: left;">The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) has developed a hybrid aerial drone that can enter flaming skyscrapers and endure flames of more than 1,000 degrees Celsius. The bot can shift from flight mode to spider mode on its own, crawling up walls to navigate narrow spaces.

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style="text-align: left;">S.W.A.R.M. (Search With Aerial RC Multirotor) is a volunteer network of drone owners that work with authorities in search-and-rescue scenarios. Coordinated drone searches are less expensive than piloted aircraft operations, and can cover larger areas. The group has more than 1,000 members in 42 countries.

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style="text-align: left;">This concept UAV from industrial designers Frog Design can be deployed in skiing areas for both avalanche prevention and rescue. The drone could carry explosives to trigger controlled avalanches, or use its thermal cameras to locate people trapped under snow.

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style="text-align: left;">Another concept UAV from Frog Design, the Firestorm uses an array of advanced sensors to move through burning buildings. Powerful LED lights and a short-wave bullhorn can be used to guide survivors to safety.

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style="text-align: left;">Developed by a German nonprofit, the Defikopter is designed to deliver defibrillator units to victims in remote locations. The drone can be summoned by smartphone app and uses GPS coordinates to drop the defibrillator by parachute.

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style="text-align: left;">From the Bristol-Oxford Nuclear Research Centre in England, the Airborne Radiation Mapping (AARM) drone carries special radiation detection payloads. Deployed into radioactive environments, the UAV can quickly determine whether a particular area is safe humans.

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style="text-align: left;">Another innovative design from Boston Dynamics, the SandFlea can jump up to 30 feet in the air to overcome obstacles during reconnaissance missions. Onboard stabilizers keep the bot level while it's in flight, and the bot is accurate enough to jump directly into second- or third-floor windows.

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