When Cogo Guebara pressed a button on a robot to call the police, she was instead instructed to “step out of the way.”
Katie Flaherty and Jim Seida
“I was pushing the button but it said, ‘step out of the way,’” Guebara said. “It just kept ringing and ringing, and I kept pushing and pushing.”
She thought maybe the robot, which stands about 5 feet tall and has “POLICE” emblazoned on its egg-shaped body, wanted a visual of her face, so she crouched down for the camera. It still didn’t work.
Without a response, Rudy Espericuta, who was with Guebara and her children at the time, dialed 911. About 15 minutes later, after the fight had ended, a woman was rolled out on a stretcher and into an ambulance, her head bleeding from a cut suffered during the altercation.
Amid the scene, the robot continued to glide along its pre-programmed route, humming an intergalactic tune that could have been ripped from any low-budget sci-fi film. The almost 400-pound robot followed the park’s winding concrete from the basketball courts to the children’s splash zone, pausing every so often to tell visitors to “please keep the park clean.”
The robot, officially named HP RoboCop, has been patrolling Salt Lake Park for the Huntington Park Police Department since June. NBC News visited the park numerous times to observe its operation and its interactions with people.
While people are beginning to more commonly encounter robots in everyday life, they can often fall short of expectations — much as HP RoboCop did. That gap can be exploited as a way to make a robot more effective than it actually is, but also runs the risk of creating situations in which people rely on robots in ways they’re unprepared for, as was the case for Guebara.
The robot’s alert button is not yet connected to the police department, said Cosme Lozano, chief of police of Huntington Park, a city just southeast of downtown Los Angeles. The calls are instead directed to Knightscope, the company that creates and leases the robots.
“That’s why we’re not advertising those features,” he said. “It’s a new program for us and were still developing some protocols… to be able to fully adopt the program.”
HP RoboCop is one of more than 70 autonomous security robots developed by Knightscope. The Silicon Valley company says it has combined self-driving technology, robotics and artificial intelligence to create what it calls “crime-fighting autonomous data machines.” The robots are deployed across the U.S., serving everywhere from airports to gas stations.
Lozano said the department is facing some technical challenges incorporating the robot into the force, adding that it’s on “a trial basis for the city.” Once fully connected, the calls will go directly to the department’s dispatch center, he said.
HP RoboCop is a K5 model, specialized for outdoor use, and is one of the company’s first to wear a police moniker. Knightscope’s website promotes some of the K5’s abilities as including a 360-degree high-definition live video stream, a license plate reader that can scan 1,200 plates a minute, a two-way intercom and the ability to track cell phone use in the vicinity.
But as it is currently used, HP RoboCop is little more than a glorified security camera on wheels. The robot’s five cameras provide 24/7 live monitoring, with the ability to send footage directly to officers’ phones, but that’s currently only accessible to Knightscope. It’s another feature that the police are working on activating, Lozano said.
The robot is confined to the park’s cement path, which has been blocked by construction for a new aquatics center, curtailing its patrol of the north end of the park. Leasing the robot for a year costs the city between $60,000-$70,000, Lozano said. As of 2018, a Huntington Park police officer with a basic assignment makes an annual salary that falls in the same range.
Other Knightscope robots have not been without tribulations. One K5 robot patrolling around an office complex in Washington, D.C., ended up falling into a fountain. Another of the same model struck a toddler at a shopping mall in Silicon Valley.
The city’s official adopted name for the machine is HP RoboCop, but everyone in the park seems to have their own nicknames for it. “R2D2,” “Spy Machine,” and “Wall-E’’ are just some of the pet names that highlight the disconnect between people’s expectations of the robot and the reality of its capabilities.