Robots on Patrol
May 1, 2003 12:00 PM
BY TOM PATRICK McAULIFFE
With an increased demand for security and limited numbers of trained security personnel, something's got to give.
Some security managers have a lot of ground to police and limited staff to cover it. Others may need to approach an armed barricaded suspect or enemy combatant. Still others need to go into a nuclear reactor to check if all is well. Increasingly, security managers are turning to robots to help get the job done.
Security robots are protecting property and documenting facilities autonomously around the world. They provide surveillance on wheels and may be one of the security industry's best-kept secrets. Highly-mobile and rugged units using laser mapping and GPS navigation technology can be programmed to criss-cross a facility and document the environment, challenge trespassers and provide real-time communication to a central security control location.
Access to program robot units is secured via voice imprint or software. Programming of robot preferences can include instructions such as: If X occurs, do Y ¡ª including recording video and audio, taking digital photography, sounding an alarm or even ringing a cell phone to send a picture of what the unit is seeing. A mobile unit can be programmed to follow a set patrol path or time sequence or to respond to external stimuli such as motion, room temperature, lights, power, gas fumes, etc., all while documenting data and recording or transmitting events to authorities in another room or on the other side of the world.
Asset and location protection systems using robots allow hands-free operation via pre-operational programming, wireless CCTV monitoring and control and/or response to external stimuli. Over the long haul, it is easy to see that security robots can provide significant cost savings. While they may never replace a human security professional, robots on patrol are becoming a staple of the security industry.
The Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., first attempted the concept of a fully autonomous indoor security robot in the late 1970s. Other agencies including NASA and the Department of Defense (DoD) were also working on implementation of robotics technology. One of the first was ROBART I, which helped face a full gamut of technical challenges. Subsequent robots grew in capability, and with the end of the cold war, the technology was made available for sale to private firms through the Reagan/Bush government-to-industry privatization program.
The Mobile Detection Assessment and Response System (MDARS) is a joint Army-Navy development effort to provide an "automated intrusion detection and inventory assessment capability for use in DoD warehouses and storage sites." The MDARS program provides multiple "mobile security platforms" (robots) that perform random patrols within assigned areas of large strategic warehouses and defense storage sites. The patroling platforms can detect alarm conditions such as flooding or fires or can detect and in some cases detain intruders. There are also robots that determine the status and number of inventoried items through the use of specialized radio frequency transponder tags.
ActivMedia Robotics, Peterborough, N.H., provides several types of security robots. The makers of PatrolBot, the P3DX and other mobile robotic solutions have seen a significant upturn in business "because of what robots bring to the security table for end-users," says ActivMedia CEO Jeanne Dietsch. Mobile surveillance and sensing systems like PatrolBot provide both a back-up and a supplement to fixed systems. In case of an unexpected hazard, PatrolBot can bring in sensors that are too unusual or too expensive to place permanently around the facility. PatrolBot is also used to sense in areas where fixed sensors would interfere with normal operations.
"For instance, at Hewlett-Packard's server facility, they need a 3-D thermal map of the building space. If they were to hang temperature sensors to cover all the space in the building, it would interfere with people's ability to move about, so PatrolBot carries a pole with sensors to make a spatial temperature map of the facility at regular intervals," Dietsch says. "The added advantage of robots is that they can operate autonomously, without retrofitting the environment, and they can handle emergencies without endangering people."
Cybermotion, Roanoke, Va., makes the Cyberguard platform, the SR2, which was introduced in the mid-1990s. The units are equipped with environmental sensors and a CCD camera that relays real-time video over an analog radio frequency link back to a central security location, where a guard can take control of camera pan and tilt functions remotely. For archival purposes, continuous time-lapse video is recorded to a hard drive aboard the robotic vehicle. Cyberguard was recently enhanced with the addition of a rotating intrusion detection sensor suite called the Security Patrol Instrumentation (SPI) module. The product was developed by a government and private company partnership under a Commercial Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CCRADA) with the Naval Ocean Systems Center in San Diego.
Be it military or private industry, a mobile surveillance system that leaves security personnel hands-free for other important tasks is an irresistible tool. PatrolBots can help tighten facility security, guard valuable areas, monitor potential hazards, prevent confrontation between police and armed intruders and maximize the efficiency and coverage of existing staff. Mobile robots document problems not detectable from fixed CCTV cameras and can go into areas too dangerous for human intervention.
Like most products in its price range, PatrolBot can independently follow planned routes or be controlled wirelessly from a joystick on the operator's host PC. Through the control interface software, staff can easily change the robot's destination. The system's remote pan-tilt-zoom video camera allows the user to control view angle, zoom and distance with more flexibility than common fixed security cameras allow. Additional features include custom sensors for documenting items such as gas, temperature, location and barcodes along with two-way audio transmission enabling a control station and the detainee or area to talk and hear sounds in the robot's vicinity. Additionally, the device has pick-up and delivery capabilities with the optional gripper or on custom fixtures mounted on top.
Teaching a PatrolBot its patrol routine is as simple as driving it around a building once as it maps the floor plan into its memory. Each map can contain destinations, actions, camera positions, schedules and access to forbidden areas. Multiple paths can be created through each map to reduce patrol predictability for threats. "Remote-control robots that distance danger from people are nothing new," Dietsch says. Using PatrolBot, a single operator can monitor many robots simultaneously and still have his hands free to respond to an emergency, she adds.
Here to Stay
Innovation does not come cheap at the bleeding edge of any technology. But with more and more businesses and government agencies adopting robotic technology, prices are falling. For example, a standard PatrolBot system including a robot with embedded computer, laser, sonar, video camera, twin encoders, bump sensors and software prices out at around $30,000.
Security robots with real-time color video and other capabilities are not the wave of the future; they are here and available now. Robots, while an innovative new tool for large area security and other speciality operations, are not a panacea. "Security robots are just one piece of a robust security solution. They provide back-up and improve the odds of being able to deal with any unexpected hazard," Dietsch says.