A draft policy proposed by the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) would allow the department to kill suspects using robots, making it the first in the region to gain approval should it pass the Board of Supervisors next week.
While use-of-force via robot has never been strictly prohibited, neither has it ever been accepted before in San Francisco, so the proposal is a landmark event in the use of remotely piloted robots.
The move comes under heavy criticism for the addition of armament to robots, including widespread condemnation of the proposal and an ongoing lawsuit from Boston Dynamics after another company added a machine gun to one of its robot dogs.
According to the proposal, the policy will allow the use of deadly force by specific weaponized remotely-piloted, uncrewed robots, but only under specific circumstances.
“The robots listed in this section shall not be utilized outside of training and simulations, criminal apprehensions, critical incidents, exigent circumstances, executing a warrant or during suspicious device assessments,” states the proposal.
“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.”
The proposal outlines particular robots that will be allowed for use, including a number of small, deployable bomb disposal and reconnaissance platforms. Of note, it includes the massive REMOTEC F6A, a heavy-duty improvised explosive device disposal robot with a large robotic arm, and the QinetiQ TALON, which can be outfitted with multiple different weapons platforms.
Previous iterations of the proposal had the words “Robots shall not be used as a Use of Force against any person”, according to Mission Local. However, these have since been struck out in favor of wording outlining specific scenarios in which force could be used.
So, how could a robot be used to kill?
There is the obvious answer of strapping a gun to it, but that doesn’t achieve much over simply using the gun yourself, apart from avoiding placing a human in the line of fire. More commonly used are remote ordnances placed on a robot or drone, which is either dropped close to a combatant, or the entire vehicle is blown up to remove the threat.
Such drones have been used in the conflict in Ukraine, and one was used in 2016 by the Dallas police department to drop an explosive on a sniper in the first robot killing by a US police department.