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The US is testing robotic patrol dogs at its borders

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

Four-legged machines are being tested as autonomous sentries.

The latest addition to the United States frontier force could be robotic dogs. This week, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released new details on the testing of four-legged robots at the southern border. The vehicles are being tested in a variety of surveillance-oriented roles, and while DHS hasn't given a timeline for full rollout, they say the tests have been "successful" and work on the vehicles will continue.

“The southern frontier can be an inhospitable place for man and beast, which is why a machine can do well there,” said Brenda Long, program manager for research and development at DHS, Directorate of Science and Technology (S&T) in a blog post. “This S&T-led initiative is focused on automated ground observation vehicles, or what we call 'AGSVs'. In essence, the AGSV program is about… robot dogs.”

The four-legged machines are made by Ghost Robotics, a company that competes with the better-known Boston Dynamics (creators of the Spot robot). The most popular Ghost Robotics model, the Ghost Vision 60, is 2.5 feet (76 cm) tall, weighs 70 pounds (32 kg) and can travel over 7.5 miles in 3 hours on a single battery charge. The vehicle can be autonomously or manually operated and can be equipped with a range of payloads, including thermal and night vision cameras.

In the past, Ghost Robotics has even shown prototype weapons-equipped models, although there is no suggestion that DHS is testing such payloads. In a detailed blog post, DHS described how it screened robotic dogs for potential work at the border.

The vehicles were tested for outdoor "watchdog duty", autonomously patrolling pre-set GPS waypoints with cameras and sensors; to inspect train cars at marshalling yards, bypassing and under the cars; and a study of residential buildings, including "a scenario that simulates an encounter with potentially hostile people." These are all tasks on which robotic dogs have been tested before.

The main attraction of these four-legged machines is that, unlike tracked or wheeled vehicles, they can navigate any environment a person can access, including stairs, stairs, steep hills, and rocky terrain. But despite their complexity, these machines also have clear limitations. Real-life testing revealed a number of potential issues, including limited battery life and erratic behavior.

When the French Army tested the Boston Dynamics Spot robot in a military exercise, soldiers complained that the machine ran out of power too quickly, while US police test reports of the Spot complained of fuzzy handling and erratic performance, with the machines sometimes falling over "for no apparent reason." .

Politicians and civil rights groups have also criticized the use of such machines as inhumane, especially when the robots are used to interact with members of the public. Notably, the US Border Patrol involved in these recent lawsuits, such as the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), are themselves notorious for their brutal behavior towards immigrants. For example, a 2021 Humans Right Watch investigation detailed 160 domestic reports of physical and sexual abuse of asylum seekers at the border in recent years.

In a blog post, DHS compares the deployment of robotic dogs at the border to airborne drones - as "force multipliers" that can complement the work of human agents. As attempts to build physical walls along the United States border stall, the government is increasingly turning to technological solutions, and robotic dogs look like an obvious addition to the package. As DHS concludes, "Don't be surprised if we see a Fido robot in the field in the future, walking side by side with CBP personnel."

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