They may not be the talking, bionic cyborgs like the character in the 1987 movie “RoboCop,” but two robots are lending a mechanical helping hand to law enforcement in the Rock Hill area and beyond.
The two bomb disposal robots gained attention during the recent SWAT standoff with 53-year-old Bernard McCree, who barricaded himself in the bathroom of his Horseman Drive home with a shotgun after allegedly assaulting his wife.
While the robots were originally designed for bomb disposal purposes, police and SWAT agencies say they can be deployed to investigate any dangerous or unknown situation when lawmen want to avoid placing a human officer in unnecessary danger.
“We can replace anything on that robot,” said Sgt. David Hanoka of the Rock Hill Police Department bomb squad. “We’d be hard-pressed to replace a human being.”
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From ‘Atari’ to ‘Xbox’
The Rock Hill bomb squad has two robots. The larger F6A model is widely used by agencies around the country, according to Lt. Matthew Hall, bomb squad commander. A similar, smaller robot is known simply as “the mini.”
Each robot is equipped with an arm that can move items, open doors and packages and pull an injured officer from a dangerous situation, Hall said. Multiple cameras on each robot give officers different viewpoints of an item, and the robots also are equipped to take X-ray pictures of an item.
“But before it’s all said and done, somebody’s going to have to put the suit on, go down and verify whatever it was is rendered safe,” Hall said.
The robot’s movements are controlled by an officer with a large remote console about the size of a computer keyboard that has a small screen connected to a camera on the robot.
The machines haven’t always been wireless, though, according to Hall. When the robots were purchased, they were tethered to a control console by a 1,500-foot fiber optic cable, which limited how far away the bomb squad could work from a potentially dangerous situation. The older control console is a briefcase-like device that opens up to a panel of knobs and toggle switches.
“You had a joystick that was similar to the old Atari-style joystick,” Hanoka said. “You move from that to this small console that is a beefed-up Nintendo or Xbox controller. Once you get used to this, they say, ‘OK, let’s upgrade it,’ and they give you this.”
The larger robot cost about $175,000 when it was purchased with grant funding in 2006, but Hanoka said that with the technology upgrades over the years, the robot is valued around $250,000 now.
The robots – the larger of which weighs about 500 pounds – could breach a door if the need arises, Hanoka said. Stairs aren’t a problem either.
“It’s all in the ability of the driver,” he said. “The only thing that might limit us on stairs would be the width of the stairs.”
To stay sharp on their robot-handling skills and technology, the operators must train at least 16 hours each month, according to Hanoka.
“When we’re going through our six-week certification, they only give us a week to get used to and exposed to the robot,” he said. “Once you get out of school, it’s up to you to maintain your proficiency.”
Calls such as last week’s standoff give officers the chance to put those skills to work. Rock Hill has one of only 11 bomb squads in the state, according to Hall. The five-man squad responds to between 20 and 30 calls each year, which can be explosives-related or providing assistance to SWAT.
Because there are so few bomb squads, Rock Hill can respond to calls outside the city limits and even beyond York County.
“Technically with what we do, we’re not bound by any jurisdictional boundaries,” Hall said. “We’re not making arrests; we’re providing a support role.”
Teddy Kulmalla • 803-329-4082