As military buys more robots, police ask for leftovers
- By Matt Leonard
- Sep 25, 2017
The ground-based robots produced by Endeavor Robotics continue to find enthusiastic users in the defense space, and demand is trickling down to local law enforcement.
The company recently announced the sale of 75 of its FirstLook robots to the United States government and last month the Defense Department awarded the company a $15 million order to update some of its systems already in the field with new features.
Since it began, originally under the name iRobot Defense and Security, Endeavor has sold more than 6,000 of its robots. It’s smallest machine, the FirstLook weighs five pounds and is designed to be thrown and survive drops of “15 or more feet onto concrete,” according to Endeavor CEO Sean Bielat.
He said the FirstLook has received some upgrades over the years. Its manipulator, used to interact with the world, is new and stronger. But the biggest improvement, Bielat said, is the new controller, which is a software-based technology that lives on an Android tablet. It makes moving the robot more intuitive, he said.
“The user can pull their finger across the screen and point to specific areas to control the robot and drive to those areas,” he said.
The controller works on the FirstLook and their other devices like the Small Unmanned Ground Vehicles, the 30 pound older sibling to the FirstLook. Part of the recent upgrade order with the U.S. military will be providing these new controllers for devices.
About 60 percent of Endeavor’s business comes from the Defense Department and another third is foreign, mostly military, Bielat said. A small amount of the remaining business is from police departments.
“The Boston police used a couple of FirstLooks after the Boston Marathon bombing to check out a couple local buildings,” he said. “A lot of SWAT teams will use the FirstLook to go into a building prior to entering it themselves.”
There hasn’t been significant growth in the number of police departments who buy robots, Bielat said, but interest seems to be up.
“There has been a big increase in awareness and desire for robots," he said. " The problem is that most police departments don’t have the funding.”
Some police departments receive hand-me-downs from the military through the Defense Department's 1033 Program, but even with the device in hand the cost can be more than local departments expect.
“It’s sort of a mixed blessing,” he said. “The police departments are typically happy to receive the robots, but then they don’t have the budget to do very basic maintenance and training with them.”
Tracks on the robot must be replaced, for example. Controllers could wear out and manipulators can break. And even just a few hundred dollars can be too much for a local police department that is operating on a tight budget, Bielat noted.
A current list of 1033 requests show that police departments from the Pelham Police Department in Alabama and the Covina Police Department in California have received shipments of explosive ordnance disposal robots.
The departments who are getting robots through this program aren’t getting new technology by any means. The equipment has been used, and often in a brutal environment, Bielat said. But police departments are aware of this, according to Robotics Business Review. That’s why many departments ask for multiple robots, so some can be used for parts.
Bielat said his firm doesn’t know how exactly how many of its robots have been transferred to local police through the 1033 program, but more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies have enrolled overall.
Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.