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San Francisco lawmakers approve lethal robots, but they can’t carry guns

San Francisco police can deploy so-called “killer robots” following a Board of Supervisors’ vote on Tuesday, clearing the cops to use robots equipped with explosives in extreme situations.

The robots primarily will be used to neutralize and dispose of bombs, and provide video reconnaissance, according to San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman. He added that none of the robots will carry guns, “and SFPD has no plans to attach firearms,” in a Twitter thread after the vote. 

“However, in extreme circumstances it is conceivable that use of a robot might be the best and only way of dealing with a terrorist or mass shooter,” Mandelman said.

Such a situation has happened before. In July 2106 a mass-shooting incident left five police officers dead and another 11 people wounded, and the suspect was cornered in a local building. Police strapped an explosive charge onto a bomb-disposal robot, which detonated near the suspect, killing him.

An earlier draft of the San Francisco ordinance stated “robots shall not be used as a use of force against any person.” The policy’s authorized use section was amended to say: “Robots will only be used as a deadly force option when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available to SFPD.”

An SFPD spokesperson told The Register that the police department does not own or operate any robots equipped with lethal force options — a scenario considered and then abandoned by the Oakland Police Department — and has no plans to arm the machines with “any type of firearm.”

“As an intermediate force option, robots could potentially be equipped with explosive charges to breach fortified structures containing violent, armed, or dangerous subjects or used to contact, incapacitate, or disorient violent, armed, or dangerous suspect who pose a risk of loss of life to law enforcement or other first responders by use of any other method, approach, or contact,” Officer Robert Rueca said in an email to The Register

“While an explosive charge may be considered an intermediate force option, it could potentially cause injury or be lethal,” he added. “Robots equipped in this manner would only be used in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent lives.” 

The ordinance approved on Tuesday brings San Francisco into compliance with California Assembly Bill 481, which requires law enforcement agencies to obtain approval from an appropriate legislative body for the use of military equipment, and codifies the existing police department policy.

SFPD currently owns 17 robots, all of which the department purchased before January 2022. During this time, the department has “not faced a situation where the delivery of lethal force was necessary,” Rueca said.

These include the Remotec models F5A, 6A, and RONS. All three are remotely operated and the first two are heavy-duty robots, according to the SFPD’s inventory statement. Both can climb stairs and lift heavy objects: over 85 pounds (Remotec F5A) and 65 pounds (Remotec F6A). Remotec RONS is used to neutralize bombs.

Other robots include the QinetiQ Talon, which can be deployed for improvised explosive devices, chemical and biological weapons, HAZMAT and rescue missions, and the smaller QinetiQ Dragon Runner, which can be hand carried and provides “protection and safety to their operators.”

Additionally, IRobot FirstLook and Recon Robotics Recon Scout are throwable robots can that perform reconnaissance and investigate dangerous materials while keeping cops out of harm’s way. ®