Robot dogs could help officers detect illegal activity along the border

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“Robot dogs” – four-legged headless machines equipped with cameras and sensors – could one day prowl along the southwestern border, spot undocumented migrants or sniff out drug traffickers.

Department of Homeland Security officials tested the four-legged 100-pound prototypes in Virginia and Texas. Officials hope to equip the robots, developed by Philadelphia-based Ghost Robotics, with cameras and sensors to help Border Patrol agents detect illegal activity.

The mechanized prototype was designed to navigate the rugged terrain faced by agents along the border, said Gavin Kenneally, director of product for Ghost Robotics, in a DHS press release.

“It’s a tough quadruped robot,” he said. “It traverses all types of natural terrain, including sand, rocks and hills, as well as man-made environments, such as stairs. That’s why you want legs, not tracks.”

But civil rights and immigrant advocates have warned that the robots could infringe on civil liberties — of asylum seekers and border residents — and questioned whether it’s the best use of federal funds as the US immigration system remains in deep crisis.

“Nothing more clearly illustrates a dehumanizing approach to migrants than the creation of robotic dogs to terrorize them,” Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services at the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center, said in a statement. the government is spending the money to get it started, instead of devoting resources to ensuring meaningful access to asylum at the border.

The robot dogs are the latest ongoing efforts by DHS to deploy the technology along its southwest border. The agency has also used drones capable of covert aerial surveillance, towers that detect and track illegal activity, and smartphone apps that allow officers to see the locations of team members in the field and reduce incidents. of friendly fire.

Between fiscal years 2017 and 2020, Customs and Border Protection, which oversees border enforcement, received more than $743 million for border security technology, according to a report last year from the Bureau of Inspector General of DHS.

However, the agency only launched 28% of proposed plans for border technology, according to the report.

“There remains a great deal of work at CBP to meet the Federal requirement to deploy the most effective technologies and tools to support the border wall system and further improve situational awareness by closing existing gaps in coverage of the border surveillance,” he said.

Homeland Security’s research and development arm, known as the Science and Technology Directorate, had been developing the robot dogs with Ghost Robotics for about two and a half years, according to the DHS statement.

They were first tested at a facility in Lorton, Virginia, where they were mounted with video cameras and sensor arrays and used to transmit real-time video and other data to monitors.

Then the robots moved to El Paso, Texas, where they were rigged with cameras and other equipment and tested climbing hills, ravines and rocks, while carrying a 20-pound payload, according to the press release. The dogs also carried out sentry missions in the desert, day and night, he added.

Kenneally, the head of Ghost Robotics, said in the statement that the robot dog’s paws have the ability to sense through its motors and can “estimate frictional forces and automatically correct uneven or slippery floors.” The researchers also looked at basic maintenance and repair in the field, such as battery life and the ease of swapping out worn “lug” treads.

The press release says the robot dogs, during testing in El Paso, walked through indoor facilities where they encountered “potentially hostile individuals.” But a DHS spokesperson said in a statement that the dogs are not designed or tested to interact with migrants.

The robots were still in the research and development phase and there is currently “no timetable” for their deployment, according to the statement.

“Despite advancements and sophistication, these machines sometimes struggle with battery life and mobility in the rough terrain along the southwestern border, limiting their immediate usefulness in many operational environments,” said he declared.

Similar robot dogs were tested last year by New York police officers and Massachusetts State Police and raised concerns among human rights groups, particularly about the potential for militarization robots, said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The robots also raise concerns about the remote control’s aggression towards people, he said. Robot dogs at the border could present a host of similar problems for people living along the border, he said.

“We have long been concerned about the remote use of force via robots,” Stanley said. “It’s something that could easily spiral out of control in the future.”

He added: “It’s hard to imagine how practical robot dogs will be in frontier regions given their minimal battery life, slow speed and other limitations. It smacks of toy experimentation. of high technology driven by companies.”

One of the benefits robot dogs can have is having a roving camera on the ground that could potentially capture interactions between Border Patrol agents and migrants, which could lead to greater officer accountability, said Terence Garrett, professor of political science at the University of Texas, Rio. Grande Valley in Brownsville, which studies border security.

Advocates have long called for body cameras on Border Patrol agents, but the federal government is slow to deploy them.

However, if the robot dogs are fitted with tracking devices, they could also follow migrants, suspected smugglers or US citizens living along the border, Garrett said.

Like drones, dogs could track suspects engaged in illegal activity, he said. But like the drones, they could make mistakes, confront or harass unsuspecting residents along the border.

“There are potential problems with these things,” he said. “It depends on how they are used, but I’m not too optimistic.”

Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.

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