Killer robot used by Dallas police opens ethical debate

Killer robot used by Dallas police opens ethical debate
Dallas police respond after shots were fired during a protest over recent fatal shootings by police in Louisiana and Minnesota, Thursday, July 7, 2016, in Dallas. Snipers opened fire on police officers during protests; several officers were killed, police said. (Maria R. Olivas/The Dallas Morning News via AP)

When Dallas police used a bomb-carrying robot to kill a sniper, they also kicked off an ethical debate about technology's use as a crime-fighting weapon.

In what appears to be an unprecedented tactic, rigged a bomb-disposal to kill an armed suspect in the fatal shootings of five officers in Dallas. While there doesn't appear to be any hard data on the subject, security experts and officials said they couldn't recall another time when police have deployed a robot with lethal intent.

The strategy opens a new chapter in the escalating use of remote and semi-autonomous devices to fight crime and protect lives. It also raises new questions over when it's appropriate to dispatch a robot to kill dangerous suspects instead of continuing to negotiate their surrender.

"If lethally equipped robots can be used in this situation, when else can they be used?" says Elizabeth Joh, a University of California at Davis law professor who has followed U.S. law enforcement's use of technology. "Extreme emergencies shouldn't define the scope of more ordinary situations where police may want to use robots that are capable of harm."

Dallas Police Chief David Brown defended his department's decision. "Other options would have exposed our officers to great danger," he said.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings applauded Brown for making "the right call" and said he would have no qualms about resorting to the same strategy in the future. "When there's no other way, I think this is a good example," he said. "The key thing is to keep our police out of harm's way."


Police have been using such robots for decades to dispose of suspected bombs and in hostage standoffs and fires. Meanwhile, militaries around the world have come to rely on their robotic friends to disable improvised explosive devices—a need that only increased with the U.S. occupation of Iraq following its 2003 invasion.

Many of the robots joining police forces are coming from a U.S. Department of Defense program transferring surplus equipment from the military. These exchanges have provided with robots such as Packbot made by Endeavor Robotics, the Talon from QinetiQ and the MARCbot made by Exponent.

But military experts said ground-level robots are rarely used to kill the enemy. Their main purpose is to detect and defuse bombs to save lives. Military robots are "fairly clunky and used best for reconnaissance rather than the offensive," said Tom Gorup, an infantry veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who's now an official at the IT-security firm Rook Security.

Airborne robots are another matter. The U.S. military has sent remotely piloted drones to kill hundreds of people, including civilians, in counterterror attacks launched overseas since 2009, based on estimates released last week by the Obama administration.


The robots working for police departments across the country range in size from devices as small as a dog bone to others as large as a truck. Some are little more than a mechanical arm mounted onto a vehicle and equipped with a video camera and two-way audio communications, according to William Flanagan, a retired deputy police chief from New York's Nassau County who now does law enforcement and technology consulting. The most versatile robots can climb stairs and navigate other tight spots, such as this one made by Icor Technology.

Many models used by police are about the size of a backpack.

Flanagan speculated that police in Dallas probably equipped their robot with a low-powered explosive—possibly one similar to what bomb squads use to blow up suspicious packages—that would only disable what's closest to it.

Dallas police didn't respond to a request for further information about their use of the robot.


Robotics expert Peter W. Singer, of the New America Foundation, said the killing marked the first instance he's aware of in which police have used a robot to lethal effect. But when he was researching his 2009 book "Wired for War," a U.S. soldier told him troops in Iraq sometimes used surveillance robots against insurgents, he added in an email Friday.

William Cohen, a former Exponent employee who helped design the MARCbot, said that robot was built to save lives instead of ending them. Although he was relieved the killing of the armed suspect in Dallas assured that no other police officers or bystanders would be harmed, Cohen says he's worried about what might happen next.

"It opens a whole new set of questions of how to deal with these kinds of situations," Cohen said. "Where are the police going to draw the line when trying to decide between continuing to negotiate and doing something like this?"

Explore further

Dallas robot bomb highlights technology in policing

© 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Citation: Killer robot used by Dallas police opens ethical debate (2016, July 9) retrieved 24 August 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Jul 09, 2016
This type of thing is nothing new. The only thing that changed is the method, it used to be fire. I am not talking conspiracy here but rather common sense. Over and over again when various dangerous people have barricaded themselves in a building, the building accidently caught fire. examples Waco Siege, 4/23/2016 Kansas motel and others.
I can understand why. These officers form bonds with their fellow officers that are as strong as brothers. Why send your brothers in to be killed when a quick accidental fire will resolve the situation? Which of us would not do the same, with our families lives on the line?
There are pictures on youtube of robots moving so fast the human eye can't follow. Why not develop and equip them with tasers and send them in. The only thing that stops their development is battery life but we are only talking a vary few minuets to get the job done.

Jul 09, 2016
In terms of the "ethics" of killing, I fail to see a strong distinction in this case versus a drone dropping a bomb... or even a sniper taking a "cheap shot" on an unsuspecting victim.

And this is coming from a fairly anti-gun, anti-war person. I'm just not terribly fond of marrying the objective (kill) with the subjective ("honorably" vs "dirtily").

Not even going to comment on the negotiation option, since I am not privy to the full exchange between the officers and the gunman. However, my impression is that it just might have been doubtful to negotiate a peaceful outcome in Dallas that night.

Jul 09, 2016
says Elizabeth Joh, a University of California at Davis law professor who has followed U.S. law enforcement's use of technology. "Extreme emergencies shouldn't define the scope of more ordinary situations where police may want to use robots that are capable of harm."

The Dallas cops already had body armor protection stripped from them exposing them to wide open vulnerability. The shooter on the other hand wore full body armor protection with far better kill capability using body armor piercing munitions, resulting in 5 dead & a dozen more hospitalized. But somehow it just isn't fair that the murderer gets taken out by a goddam robot.

Jul 09, 2016
Among other things, eminently dangerous when the primary tenet of the police become, "The police must be protected". They intend to suggest that they are devoted to the public's welfare, but, if they aren't protected, they won't be around to protect the people. But, the people's welfare must be first and foremost. That's why they are there, to do the hazardous, to take chances. That's why they are paid well and given so many advantages. If protecting themselves becomes their primary purpose, they can extend that to killing jaywalkers so they don't have to be endangered if the jaywalker has a gun. It means they can kill the innocent with impunity, it means they can murder someone who is violent, but violent because they have genuine grievances that the crooks in "government" refused to listen to! This is a step to the police state!
It can also be asked, among other things, how a rolling robot managed to get to close to the "suspect".

Jul 09, 2016
ROBOCOP TIME!! I still won't believe any of this story until the video footage is released. The news media did an absolutely HORRIBLE job reporting this incident from start to finish. First off, they incriminated the wrong suspect. Secondly, they said that there were 4 acting suspects. Thirdly, the media also reported the dangers of bombs. Their entire news report was absolutely wrong from start to finish. I understand that different theories emerge during an active crime scene, but how do the media continue to get every single news event wrong? I believed the entire news report until afterward when every bit of information relayed to the public was incorrect. I also noticed that many news sites that have falsely reported 95% of information after the fact in the past have also reported these fallacies. Twitter and the news will never officially be accurate again. It seems that every news source has slowly evolved into "The Sun" newspaper.

Jul 09, 2016

It can also be asked, among other things, how a rolling robot managed to get to close to the "suspect".

I read an earlier report that stated that they had him on the phone negotiating when they came up with the robot and blew him up. Distracted him with the delusion that they were ever going to allow him out of there alive. Extrajudicial executions like this almost never end with the police being sanctioned for removing the rights of someone who was never tried and found guilty. I agree he needed to die for his actions, but only after his day in court where it was proven that he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Jul 09, 2016
I agree he needed to die for his actions, but only after his day in court where it was proven that he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

So, how many more would you agree to letting die, just to get him to his day in court? I disagree that he needed to die for his actions, as nothing would bring back those he already killed. But, something had to be done to prevent him killing further and that's why he needed to die.

Jul 09, 2016
If he was an Active aggressor at the time of the bomb, yes it was justified. However if he was actually on the phone and not attempting to kill or injure someone at the time, he would be considered an Active resistor, which makes killing him unreasonable. The difference might seem trivial, but it makes all the difference in the world. Having a group of people decide that you are not going to live through the encounter, no matter how you are acting at the time, is not how the police are supposed to uphold the law. If they cannot control their anger, they should not have been there. Extrajudicial killings only raise tensions and cause more deaths on both sides.

Jul 09, 2016
Extrajudicial killings only raise tensions and cause more deaths on both sides. why wasn't the murderer thinking about these things as he was preparing to murder more people after a momentary distraction? If the murderer could not control his anger, he should not have been there, he should have been in a group therapy session for Anger Management instead of out on the streets of Dallas with the intent of murdering way more than five people, he tried to murder a dozen more than just the five, the count have could have been 17.

Hey, Jeff, get out of the psycho-babble rut you're in as you fumble around trying to impress us with what a good & decent person you are.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more