Six years ago, in the heat of the deadliest assault on U.S. law enforcement since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Dallas police chief David Brown made an unprecedented decision.
With a man believed to have shot and killed five officers holed up in a parking garage, threatening to continue his rampage, Brown directed his squad to retrieve the department’s Remotec Andros Mark V-A1 bomb disposal robot. He then ordered officers to affix a brick of plastic C-4 to the robot, send it near the suspect, and detonate the explosive. The officers did as told, and the blast killed the 25-year-old assailant, former Army reservist Micah Johnson.
The 2016 incident in Dallas was, and remains, the only known case of U.S. local law enforcement using an officer-controlled robot to end a suspect’s life. In the years since, innovation and shifting mores have revived the debate over police using weaponized robots, highlighted by recent showdowns in San Francisco and nearby Oakland.
Amid heightened fears of mass shootings, a smattering of police departments are increasingly looking to weaponized robots as a last resort for subduing suspects and keeping officers out of harm’s way. But some civil liberties and criminal justice advocates warn about the potential for law enforcement to misuse and abuse another deadly tool in their arsenal, during a national reckoning on police brutality.
The controversy over robots adds to the long-running nationwide fight over public safety, trust in police, and the militarization of American law enforcement.
“It definitely marks a new level of possible violence meted out by law enforcement, so it’s incredibly important that we have this conversation,” says Beryl Lipton, an investigative researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit focused on defending civil rights in the digital age.
For many of the nation’s 18,000-plus local, state, and federal police departments, remote-controlled robots are an everyday tool in the fight against violent crime. Law enforcement primarily uses the hardware to scope out dangerous crime scenes or disarm explosives, protecting officers in the process. Many robots resemble what’s typically used for disposing of bombs—think WALL-E from the animated film of the same name, but with one arm and a video camera. More-advanced robots walk on four legs and cost six figures. Very few, if any, robots purchased by police come equipped with guns or other weaponry, though officers can attach bombs, rifles, and other munitions with a little elbow grease.
To date, any disputes over law enforcement’s use of weaponized robots have been largely theoretical. While no federal agency tracks the deployment of robots to kill or maim suspects, there have been no widely reported cases outside of the Dallas bombardment. In that instance, the city’s residents raised minimal fuss about Johnson’s cause of death, and a county grand jury declined to indict the officers responsible. (Police in Maine twice used an explosive-carrying robot in recent years to destroy property during a standoff, hoping to clear a path to the suspect. Neither blast caused serious injuries.)
Still, occasional clashes over weaponized robots continue to flare up, most recently in the liberal bastion of San Francisco.
In response to a new state law mandating that municipalities set policies on the use of military-grade equipment, San Francisco police last fall asked the city’s Board of Supervisors, the equivalent of the city council, for permission to kill people with robots when there’s “imminent” risk of loss of life and no better options available. City police said they owned 12 functioning robots that could be outfitted with explosives in an emergency.
San Francisco police made their case by invoking the Dallas rampage and the 2017 shooting that left 58 dead and nearly 800 wounded, by a suspect holed up in a Las Vegas hotel room. (The assailant, Stephen Paddock, killed himself before police could subdue him.)
In late November, San Francisco supervisors backed the policy in the first of two votes needed for passage. But following a week of backlash, culminating in a letter of opposition signed by 51 local, state, and national organizations, supervisors voted to send the language back to committee. The proposal’s opponents argued it would lead to unnecessary violence against the public and disproportionately impact members of the city’s Black and Hispanic communities, who have been shot by police at higher rates than white residents.
“I felt increasingly uncomfortable with our vote on that particular policy,” then-supervisor Gordon Mar, who left the board in January, said during a public meeting. “I simply do not think arming robots and giving them license to kill will make us safer.”
In a statement, San Francisco police officials said the conversation around killer robots had become “distorted” and “a distraction from the real issue” of stopping active-shooter or mass-casualty events. Board president Aaron Peskin, who led the committee that drafted the proposed robot policy, said there are “no looming time pressures or political pressures to take this back up anytime soon.”
A similar uproar played out across the bay in Oakland last fall following a meeting between city police and members of a civilian oversight committee. Oakland police officials raised the possibility of firing shotgun rounds from an accessory attached to the agency’s robots. The following month, after public outcry, police chief LeRonne Armstrong squelched the controversy, declaring the department “no longer wanted to explore that particular option.”
While weaponized robots remain a mostly abstract concept in American neighborhoods, rapidly evolving robotics technology and law enforcement’s embrace of military-style weaponry continue to drive fears of a future dystopian police state.
In the past few years alone, leading robotics companies have made strides in developing remarkably agile robots, including two-legged androids and four-legged machines. In turn, a few defense contractors and a handful of at-home MacGyvers attached remote-controlled guns to their robots, leading to viral backlash online. The jerry-rigging of commercially available robots prompted six of the industry’s leading players, including Boston Dynamics, to speak out late last year against the weaponization of their products.
In one high-profile 2021 case, defense contractors Ghost Robotics and SWORD Defense Systems sent the internet into a tizzy by posting a photo of a doglike robot with a rifle mounted on top. SWORD president Jeremy Elrod, whose company made the firearm in the picture, says the robot is only for sale to military clients and remains “many, many years” away from getting into law enforcement’s hands, if ever. When police agencies approach him about armed robots, Elrod says, he emphasizes the need for extensive training protocols and detailed use-of-force policies.
“We’re not some kind of Bond villains over here, coming up with ways to kill people and take over the planet with robots,” Elrod notes. “Our intent, from our side as a company, is that we wanted to push the envelope a little bit to say: This is the future” and that “the conversation needs to start being had here in the U.S.”
Critics of weaponized robots, however, worry about military-grade robots eventually trickling down to local authorities through the Defense Department’s military surplus program, a decades-old initiative to outfit police with used equipment. Since 1990, local and state law enforcement have received guns, trucks, and other items from the military originally valued at nearly $8 billion, according to federal data.
Michelle Madej, a spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency, the federal department responsible for administering the military surplus program, says all robots shipped to local law enforcement are stripped of any weapons systems.
The U.S. Army’s leading vendor for unmanned armed vehicles is U.K.-based QinetiQ. One of its robots can be equipped with “multiple options for escalation of force” including a grenade launcher or machine gun for use in ambushes and other military missions. QinetiQ did not respond to requests for comment.
Internationally, a movement is underway by dozens of countries within the United Nations to ban autonomous killer robots and drones for military use. But that effort is stuck in committee because several members including Russia, Israel, and the U.S. oppose any prohibition.
For Robert Marks II, a distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering at Baylor University and author of The Case for Killer Robots: Why America’s Military Needs to Continue Development of Lethal AI, arguments over weaponized robots echo long-standing fights over gun rights and community policing in America. Marks says he foresees a future in which conservative-leaning municipalities are more permissive of armed robots, while more liberal enclaves resist their arrival.
“It seems to me there’s an incredible parallel to the Second Amendment debate we’ve always had,” Marks says. “In the end, it comes down to ethics.”
Several firms have developed robots for military or law enforcement uses, though most of their technology does not come outfitted with weapons.
Product name: Spot
Description: Sleek four-legged robot with 360-degree camera tailored for business, law enforcement
Primary uses: Surveillance, inspection
Product name: Andros Spartan Unmanned Ground Vehicle
Description: Updated 2021 version of four-wheel, single-arm robot used to kill the Dallas police shooter
Primary uses: Bomb disposal, inspection
Product name: Vision 60 Q-UGV Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System
Description: Rugged four-legged robot designed to accommodate various attachments
Primary uses: Industrial, military
Product name: Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System
Description: Compact military-grade robot capable of launching explosives, firing machine-gun rounds
Primary uses: Combat assistance
This article appears in the February/March 2023 issue of Fortune with the headline, “Killer robots in the crosshairs.”
Learn how to navigate and strengthen trust in your business with The Trust Factor, a weekly newsletter examining what leaders need to succeed. Sign up here.