Robotics’ growth produces big business for Minnesota, big concerns about use

A decade ago, Australian Rodney Brooks gave a TED talk predicting robots would revolutionize our lives.

A few months ago, Brooks gave the keynote at St. Paul’s RiverCentre, where the third annual “Robotics Alley Expo” (PDF) showcased robot stars, such as Data the robot comedian, and a fuzzy therapy bot, designed to resemble one of those big-eyed harp seal pups that used to be clubbed to death for their snow-white fur.

Robotics’ soft side, though, is mostly window dressing.

Robots have become hard, hot properties, in fields ranging from industrial automation to medicine to law enforcement, and especially in national defense.

They mean big business for Minnesota, which is earning a world-class reputation as a launch pad for robotic and unmanned vehicle innovations, including the proliferation of drones.

Some of these devices are now coming to metro-area neighborhoods, and that prospect is raising an array of concerns involving everything from citizens’ privacy rights to proper usage guidelines to worries about a growing “militarization” of local law-enforcement efforts. 

Minnesota on cutting edge

During the past decade, two separate groups at the University of Minnesota and the University of St. Thomas pioneered cutting-edge robotic devices, commercializing high-tech surveillance inventions to serve law enforcement and the military.

Courtesy of ReconRobotics
The Throwbot

ReconRobotics Inc. of Edina, spun out of the U of M’s Distributed Robotics, is marketing a prototype for a small, throwable device called a “Throwbot.” If you can picture a motorized barbell with an onboard camera that broadcasts an audiovisual signal as it rolls, you’ve just about got the idea.

The research, originally funded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, took off. Recon’s robots have been acquired by hundreds of domestic law-enforcement agencies and the U.S. military. A Swiss spinoff is one of its fastest-growing subsidiaries.

Another local start-up, Xollai, prototyped robotic vision controls to land Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – i.e., drones. Founded five years ago by a quartet of St. Thomas classmates, Xollai started up its fledgling business on University Avenue.

Capitalizing on a seed-fund investment from St. Thomas’ Norris Institute, they won a 2011 award from the Defense Alliance of Minnesota, which led to the firm being acquired  by ReconRobotics.

The two companies, individually and together, fast became business stars.

Gov. Mark Dayton dubbed Xollai’s entrepreneurial spirits the “Dream Team” for advances in feedback control and computerized image recognition. Alan Bignall,  its St. Thomas alum-impresario, was named Opus College of Business Entrepreneur Alumnus of the Year.

Recon’s Throwbot, meanwhile, was named a top tech innovation by Popular Science. The Army bought a bunch to hunt IEDs in Afghanistan, and the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) is adapting a version for ship boarding.

East Metro police add robots

They’re now coming to a neighborhood near you.

Locally, several police departments share jurisdiction through East Metro SWAT for two Recon robots, purchased by a 2012 federal homeland security grant.

A pair of Throwbot XT systems worth about $30,000 have been used by East Metro SWAT as recently as last July, in an incident with a felon barricaded inside an apartment, according to Roseville Police Chief Rick Mathwig.

East Metro’s multi-agency tactical team covers several jurisdictions, including St. Anthony, Roseville and North St. Paul police departments, as well as the University of Minnesota campus cops.

The East Metro bots, which deliver live audio and video and have “the ability to see in darkness,” join other gadgets purchased during the past few years via federal grants, including a large armored vehicle known as a Bearcat  ($227,557) thermal imaging added later, extra charge.


The huge Bearcat would be dwarfed, however, side by side with a version owned by Hennepin County, several times larger, known as the Bear.

These military-style tools have limited uses, basically “tactical situations,” such as high-risk entries or hostage rescue. (Hennepin County’s Bear helped evacuate people during the Accent Signage workplace shooting in Minneapolis.)

Privacy and use issues abound

Still, with heightened awareness of the surveillance of average Americans by government agencies and local memories of overreach by the Metro Gang Strike Force, questions might be raised about huge quasi-military federal expense during an era of domestic cutbacks and questions about militarization of police, not to mention privacy concerns.

Jerry Krause, a Hamline criminal justice professor, says it’s not just Google Earth that privacy advocates need to worry about. Krause cites what may be a “perverse” incentive for law enforcement organizations to justify seeking more grant money by demonstrating high-tech use.

Citing an American Bar Association journal article, he explains that police can land more grant money if they conduct more raids, in other words, and they are virtually immune to accountability if they get out of line.

“Because their funding comes from the federal government,” he explains, “local officials can’t even control them by cutting their budget. This organizational structure makes some task forces virtually unaccountable, and certainly not accountable to any public official in the region they cover.”

A veteran and former policeman himself, Krause believes the use of robot technology in general makes some amount of sense.

“I’m not averse to that kind of idea,” he says. “From a policing standpoint, one of the things police want to do is go home safely at the end of their shift.”

Krause questions, though, whether a high-tech tactical response is always the safest way to extract someone for arrest when 99 percent of police calls don’t require a weapon. With a glance to the evolving future of surveillance, Krause asks the obvious question: “Is the robot going to be armed at some point?”

Chief Mathwig demurs. “No, no, no,” he says. “Robots won’t be armed.” That may be a military option, he believes, but not a civilian law-enforcement option. Yet he believes drone use in the state is very possible, citing pending legislation in the Legislature this session.  Frankly, it may depend on what is meant by “armed.”

Leading the move for greater transparency and privacy is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which claims that border protection and customs have indeed considered weaponizing drones, potentially with “non-lethal” weapons that could incapacitate a target of interest.

Mathwig insists that Roseville’s grant purchases involved local control and that city police have put data practice rules in place. Grant purchases of surveillance gadgets had to be approved by the Roseville City Council, for instance. License-plate-reader information (LPRs were funded by grants from the state of Minnesota) can only be held for 90 days. However, once purchased, local surveillance tools and techniques can be used throughout the East Metro jurisdiction, not just in Roseville.

Also, EFF research reveals a more complex picture, with many overlapping institutions and government agencies claiming access to surveillance information.

Minnesota law enforcement agencies, such as the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, have indeed accessed information from drones. Pending FAA approval, drone surveillance will be increasing in the number of both unmanned aerial vehicles and expanded persistent, 24/7 eyes on the northern border by 2016.

While ReconRobotics reports its UAV technology is still in the experimental stage, domestic drones are already being used in some U. S. cities, including nearby cities like Fargo, N.D. A handful of U.S. communities have passed or are considering ordinances banning overflights.

Constitutional issues

It will take America’s court system some time to decide the constitutionality of domestic surveillance. The Supreme Court has limited the privacy we can expect in our backyards or streets.

In general, says Krause, courts won’t be sympathetic to individuals expecting Fourth Amendment protections. “I would expect it’s going to take Congress, or on a state-by-state basis [to] place some parameters.”

Henry A. Giroux of McMaster University, author of “University in Chains,” finds the chummy relationships among businesses, universities and the military in this technology itself troubling.

“Actually it’s very dangerous,” he says. “I think this boom in secrecy and surveillance is really shocking. Who knows where that information is going?”

In the local case, police departments are quite open about their enthusiasm for nifty, new gee-whiz tools that aid in their crime-fighting mission. Giroux expresses skepticism.

“It could have all kinds of productive uses,” he says. “The real issue is how police departments are now being militarized and how they use these technologies. It has a propensity to pose a real danger to civil liberties.”

D. J. Alexander is a Twin Cities freelance writer and editor who has worked for magazines and newspapers, including the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, St. Paul Pioneer Press and St. Anthony Park Bugle.

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