Two robots are patrolling downtown parking garages in the US. Are more coming?

Dave the security robot patrols the LoDo Towers' parking lot in Denver. — Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/TNS

DENVER: LoDoMus Prime and his sidekick, Dave, roam two downtown Denver parking garages every day, watching people park their cars and rush off to appointments in nearby office buildings.

If a person lingers too long, LoDoMus Prime or Dave will start a countdown: “Five, four, three, two, one.” Then the robots call their human security backup.

They resemble R2D2 but without the bleeps, boops and squeaks emitted by the famous Star Wars droid.

The robots went to work in the LoDo Towers’ two garages on 17th Street in October 2022 after building management recognized an increase in car break-ins, said Bethany Chang, a principal with CIM Group, the firm that manages the property. Since the company deployed the robots, it has seen a more than 70% drop in car thefts and vandalism, she said.

“During Covid, security was a concern across many markets,” Chang said. “And LoDo wasn’t immune to that. We were researching ways to support our security system, our security team, and we heard about this. We thought it was a very smart innovation.”

Surveillance long has been a tool for companies looking to boost security inside and outside their properties. For years, cameras were fixed at doors and on walls to record video of people coming and going.

Now there’s a new surveillance tool that is becoming more common - autonomous robots.

LoDo Towers is the first downtown property where robots roam garages to watch for trouble.

'A much more robust public safety system'

Stacy Stephens, a spokesman for Knightscope, the security and robotics company that built LoDoMus Prime and Dave, said the machines are being placed in all sorts of venues - office buildings, airports, homeowners associations, hospitals and manufacturing sites.

PENN Entertainment, which owns the Black Hawk Ameristar casino, has a contract to use Knightscope robots in its casinos around the United States, although none are working in Black Hawk now. Stephens said he was not aware of immediate plans to place them in the Black Hawk casino.

Knightscope also has a deal with a metro Denver homeowners association, but Stephens said he could not disclose where the robots are deployed because of the contract.

The company’s robots are 5 1/2 feet tall and 3 feet wide and weigh 420 pounds. They’re marked with graphics that make it clear what their purpose is as they roam pre-programmed routes.

“When a bad guy looks at that they’re thinking, ‘What is that thing going to do?’” Stephens said.

Knightscope’s robots record a 360-degree video in 4K-quality. They speak with a public address system and have thermal imaging to detect fires, as well as gunshot detection and emergency communication capabilities.

“All that together creates a much more robust public safety system,” Stephens said.

But Knightscope’s robots are not armed. “There’s a big, red solid line between what we do and that,” Stephens said.

The LoDo Towers robots have charming names – bestowed after a contest held for tenants – and often end up in people’s selfies, Chang said.

“Our tenants have been very happy to have the enhanced security,” Chang said. “They’re robots but they seem sort of friendly robots. I’ve never heard any questions about any invasion of privacy. More than anything, people appreciate we are taking an extra step to make their experience as safe as possible.”

Chang declined to talk about the company’s video retention policy or other details to maintain security. CIM Group leases the robots, she said. Under the lease agreement, the robotics company handles maintenance and programming.

'The public is the guinea pig now'

Autonomous security robots have been in development for years, and they didn’t get off to a great start.

In 2017, a Knightscope security robot infamously ran itself into a fountain outside a Washington, DC, office building, leading to jokes about robots drowning themselves in misery.

Also in 2017, people who objected to a security robot in the San Francisco SPCA complex – an animal welfare centre – snuck up behind a Knightscope machine and tossed a tarp over it and rubbed barbecue sauce on its sensors. They believed the robot was deployed to intimidate homeless people in the area.

Michael Anderson, a member of a research group called Machine Ethics, said there are multiple ethical questions surrounding autonomous security robots.

First, there are privacy concerns surrounding the videos and pictures captured by the robots.

“People say, ‘You’re in public and you don’t have privacy,’ ” Anderson said. “That sounds sort of dystopian.”

Companies using robot security need data storage and retention policies and hack-proof storage, he said.

Operators also need to be aware of who is responsible for the robot’s actions and who will be on the hook should it damage property or somehow harm a person.

Robots also can carry any biases that the people who program them hold.

In 2016, ProPublica published an in-depth look at how computer programs used to predict criminal behaviour were biased against Black people.

Artificial intelligence and robots are developing quickly and those who create them and use them are learning as they go, Anderson said. But they are not going away, and people will become accustomed to them.

“No one knows what’s going to happen, but no one is going to stop and wait and see,” Anderson said. “The public is the guinea pig now. The public is the beta tester.” – The Denver Post/Tribune News Service
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