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Besides serving as a crime deterrent, Knightscope machines have a diverse array of functionality in a retail environment. The robots can provide a store directory and parking information, or be programmed to deliver public relations messages. (Photo courtesy of Knightscope)

Force Multiplier

A bike was stolen from an isolated urban alley in a city on the East Coast of the United States. Although the area surrounding the alley was covered by surveillance cameras and the entire theft was captured on video, the perpetrators could not be identified because they had covered their faces.

But thanks to a robot patrolling in the area, much clearer video of the perpetrators, their clothing, and their interactions with each other was captured at eye-level by the machine’s camera, and footage was turned over to police.

At a U.S. shopping center, a robot’s thermal imaging camera captured a high-heat signal coming from a kiosk inside the mall after hours. The robot sent an alert to the security command center, which dispatched a security professional to investigate. He found a curling iron left plugged in, which could have led to a conflagration within a few hours, potentially leading to the damage and loss of assets.

These and countless other illustrations from Allied Universal customers demonstrate how robots, as a force multiplier, are changing the way security companies do business.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the number of people employed as security guards in the United States will reach 1.15 million by 2024. Robotics is also a burgeoning industry, and spending is expected to top $135.4 billion next year, according to a report by the International Data Corporation.

Given the growth in both sectors, the union of robots and security is an ideal one, says Ty Richmond, CPP, president of integrated security solutions and technology at Allied Universal.

Allied Universal has partnered with robotics companies, including Knightscope and Robotics Assistance Devices (RAD), to deploy its guard services in various industries.

“We look at robots as we would at any other product that provides a broader and greater situational awareness capability–which is really the core and key to what we’re building,” Richmond says.

Security companies are syncing up with robotics developers to take advantage of the autonomous technology, and are using the machines to augment everything from camera surveillance to customer interaction.

Weighing in at 400 pounds and standing about 5 feet tall, the Knightscope Autonomous Data Machine (ADM) K5 model is designed for outdoor use; the K3 is suited for indoor applications. These robots scan their environment for threats and report anomalies back to a live security team out of Allied Universal’s security operations center. Another model, the K1, is designed to detect if someone is carrying a weapon.

The robots are equipped with features such as 360-degree video, thermal imaging, license plate recognition, and intercom and broadcast capabilities. These machines can be set to patrol a specific geographic area on a schedule, and can send a warning message to any unauthorized person who is in that location, such as a shopping mall after hours.

Allied Universal also partners with RAD to deploy a robot model designed for a more rugged environment, with many of the same features as the Knightscope machines. The RAD devices are useful in bigger industrial environments, such as large factories or outdoor areas that span many miles.

Steve Reinharz, CEO and founder of RAD, notes that the success of the robotics approach for security companies depends on thoughtful, meaningful placement of the machines.

“It’s essential that I don’t deploy robots in areas where they’re going to be unsuccessful or where we’re going to get bad press, or where it can negatively affect the direction of this industry,” Reinharz says.

Robots have wound up in the news for less than desirable reasons. The San Francisco Business Times reported in December 2017 that one Knightscope machine deployed by the San Francisco SPCA, a nonprofit whose mission is to “save and protect animals,” was shooing away homeless people on city sidewalks. The city ordered the SPCA to stop deploying the robots on sidewalks or face a $1,000 per-day fine.

With movies depicting robots that are intelligent enough to be mistaken for humans, Reinharz adds that customer expectations are often misaligned when they hear the word robot. “We have to say to our customers, ‘This is version one…let’s just slow down, let’s make sure we have successful deployments, and we do it the right way,’” he says.

Beyond a security application, robots have business value that companies are just beginning to explore. “There are various types of interaction that these products can have that are very customer-service and marketing oriented,” Richmond says. For example, the machines can be programmed to give a welcome message, remind people to lock their cars, share store directory information, and more. Robots can have a public relations purpose also.

Whenever a security officer is posted at a store entrance or walking the aisles of a concert venue, people often react uncomfortably, Reinharz says, as if they have been intruded upon. Replace that guard with a robot, and the response is completely different. 

“I put a security robot in that exact same position and I have throngs of people coming up to it,” Reinharz says. “They want to take selfies with it, they have a thousand questions for it, they love it and they are smiling and they are talking about it, posting it on social media.”

In some situations, robots may even be more suited for the job than a security officer. “There’s a short list of areas where you can’t argue with the fact that a robot will do better than a human,” Reinharz says.

First and foremost, he says, robots can detect humans better than any person can, with their 360-degree camera views and turning capabilities. “We walk in a single direction, and our bodies are built so that when we’re looking forward, we don’t have eyes in the back of our heads. It’s awkward and impossible to be looking 360 degrees all the time,” remarks Reinharz.

Robots require few breaks, he says, though the robots might return to a charging pad when their batteries are low. “There’s no chit chat…the robot is always working. It only knows how to work, it loves to work,” Reinharz notes.

Cost is also an undeniable factor when it comes to robots. Knightscope rents out its machines for roughly $7 an hour, for example, which is about half the cost of an average security guard’s wages.

From a safety standpoint, a potentially terse or even violent situation may be much more suitable for a robot to handle, Reinharz adds. Security officers are not meant to detain people, but to move people with bad intentions away from a customer’s site or assets. The robot can approach the suspect and initiate an audible announcement for that individual to leave. A security officer in a security operations center can also take over and speak from the robot’s speakerphone, resulting in a safer interaction for the officer.

“In my mind, we’ve avoided a potentially harmful escalation which is good for the client, it’s good for the suspect, and it’s good for the guard,” Reinharz explains.

Richmond echoes that sentiment. “Are there better environments for robots versus human security officers based on life safety issues? Without a doubt there are,” Richmond says. 

A gas plant or other toxic environment that may be deadly to a human would be innocuous to a robot, for example, “whereas a robot can patrol and monitor those areas, and if it detects one of those gases, it’s able to provide awareness and make a decision to mitigate it,” he says.

Richmond cautions that robots are not replacements for human guards, but are merely an augmentation of the role that humans play in security. “The human element is still a critical and necessary part of any security program, and has to be involved in some of the subjective decision making that requires a human thought process,” he notes.

And while robots are just one more tool in the security director’s toolbox, the machines provide a Swiss Army Knife array of capabilities for security programs. “It doesn’t mean that you’re going to get rid of all your old tools,” Reinharz adds. “Security robots can’t replace everybody.”


Holly Gilbert Stowell is associate editor at Security Management. Follow her on Twitter @hollywgilbert.