Inside a dimly lit tunnel along a stretch of simulated subway track, one of the New York Fire Department’s newest dogs showed off a few of his tricks. Lie down. To roll. To stay.
But the most remarkable things the two robotic dogs can do were mastered by real dogs long ago: run over rough terrain, jump over small obstacles, and help keep their masters out of harm’s way.
The department, which plans to deploy the robots in the coming months, is the first fire agency in the nation to buy the 70-pound machines, which cost $75,000 each and are built and sold by Boston Dynamics, a robotics company. .
The department plans to use the robots to help it with some of its most precarious search and rescue missions, which could help stave off the furious backlash that erupted when the New York City Police Department began using the same technology.
The police department cut short its contract with Boston Dynamics last April after critics raised concerns about privacy, data collection, aggressive policing tactics and the generally dystopian vibes the robot gave off as it navigated a public housing estate during a hostage taking.
Fire officials and robotics experts say how the department plans to use the robots could help reshape the perception of their use for public safety purposes.
At the command of a human operator, the device can provide vital information in the midst of a calamitous event. It has the ability to descend deep underground after a steam leak to collect images and data on hazardous debris. It can also be deployed moments after a building collapses to assess structural integrity or measure the concentration of toxic and flammable gases like carbon monoxide to better inform firefighters responding to the scene.
The real-life scenarios in which the robots, known as Spot, will be used are very different from Hollywood depictions in which humanoid or animal machines often inflict damage and invoke fear, said Captain Michael Leo of the unit of firefighter robotics.
“The TV industry and the movie industry are hurting us in some ways because they often show images of armed robots and then people think that’s what all robots are like,” he said. said Captain Leo.
“Our whole mission is to save lives,” he added. ” It’s essential. These robots will save lives.
In the Bronx, where 17 people were killed in an apartment fire earlier this year, using robots to enter dangerous conditions could save the lives of firefighters and others, the president of the city said. borough, Vanessa L. Gibson.
“I look forward to a positive and productive conversation with FDNY leadership to ensure that these robotic ‘dogs’ are only used on rare, specialized occasions in an effort to protect our residents and first responders.” Ms. Gibson said in a statement.
A spokesperson for the fire department said the robots would only collect data on hazardous materials situations and added that the department’s compliance officers have been trained in confidentiality rules. But Albert Fox Cahn, an attorney who is the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, expressed concern about what data the fire department’s robots might collect and how that data might be used in the workplace. ‘to come up.
“When agencies purchase these new systems, they always point to the best use-case scenario,” Cahn said. “And I agree, if it’s actually used in a way that keeps firefighters safe, that would be great. But the story has always been that even if it’s first presented for a compelling case, you get that creep where it’s used for more and more scenarios until it reaches areas where it just doesn’t feel justifiable.
Boston Dynamics said it first released its Spot robots in 2019 and began selling them in 2020. The company expects it will have sold more than 1,000 units by the end of this year, Nikolas Noel said, a company spokesperson.
Meanwhile, the company has worked to reverse the negative image of robots: Spot made an appearance last month on “The show tonight”, and recently had a cameo role in the first episode of “The Book of Boba Fettlike a docile animal, similar to a sheep. The fire department also plans to show the dog at school STEM programs across the city.
But concerns about privacy, surveillance and cybersecurity have doomed the robots’ earlier deployment in New York.
The robots first came under scrutiny when the police department, responding to a home invasion, sent the dog to determine if anyone was still inside an apartment. Further criticism followed after the robot was seen with officers in the lobby of a public housing building in Manhattan.
At the time, John Miller, the police department’s assistant commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, said the department terminated its lease early because the device had become a ‘target’ for criticism. who he said were using the robot to fuel debate about race and surveillance.
Later City Council members introduced legislation to prohibit the Public Security from using or threatening to use any robot armed with a weapon. (This legislation was not passed, and the weaponization of Spot is strictly against the company code of ethicssaid Mr. Noel.)
Peter Asaro, co-founder of the International Committee for Robotic Arms Control and spokesman for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, has worked with the United Nations for nearly a decade to ban the use of armed robots in global scale.
For Professor Asaro, who is also a faculty member at The New School, more education and awareness is essential, especially when it comes to robotics and public safety.
“The NYPD’s rollout of Spot has been very poor,” he said. “They didn’t really explain to anyone what they were using it for; it just showed up. There are also good potential uses for the robots by the police – but you have to be very careful to keep it clear that he’s unarmed and not garnering surveillance.
“There are always concerns about robots capturing footage of tragic scenes, and you want to see tight control over that information once it’s collected,” he added. “Other than that, I don’t really see any situations where the fire department could use this in a way that could hurt people.”
The fire department first became interested in ground-based robotics nearly 10 years ago, when members began exploring how these devices could help firefighters in the field.
But older models had significant shortcomings. The department tried several ground robots before buying a promising machine in 2014 called Super Droid. The bulky, red robot had tracks that propelled it forward or backward on treads like those found on military tanks, and could be used to detect certain hazardous materials.
However, operators quickly discovered that it was too bulky to perform some basic functions well, such as maneuvering up steep stairs or over large piles of rubble. The agency quickly began looking for a replacement. In the summer of 2020, when robotics became a standalone unit within the department, the team already had their sights set on Spot.
“He is superior on all levels. This is the most reliable technology of its kind,” Captain Leo said as he stood between the three now-retired Super Droid robots – awkward compared to Spot’s sleek yellow and black frame.
While his unit often deploys drones into smoky conditions to capture aerial footage of a fire, Spot is designed to take on rarer, mostly non-fire related missions like air monitoring for an array of materials. dangerous or crossing a subway tunnel where flying drones would stir up a whirlwind of dust, obscuring its on-board cameras.
“It’s like every piece of equipment we have,” he said. “We hope never to have to use it. But when we need it, it’s important that we have the right thing.