$13.6K robot designed to help police in standoffs sits unused in Strip warehouse

| Friday, Oct. 4, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The city had the perfect tool for peeping into a Bloomfield home during a stand-off last month, Pittsburgh police SWAT team members say.

But that surveillance device — a ReconRobotics Throwbot XT — has stayed in a Strip District warehouse since August, when the Region 13 emergency-management task force gave it to the city. The Throwbot was there during a hostage incident and five barricaded-person incidents in Pittsburgh since the first of August, too.

“We're in October now,” said Officer Eric Engelhardt, a SWAT team member. “We could've really used it up on Main Street.”

In the Sept. 7 incident near Main and Howley streets, the team threw what it calls an “eyeball” into the apartment to try seeing what members would storm into. Clothes, however, blocked most of the view from the softball-sized robotic camera, Engelhardt said.

“Our throwable technology is not maneuverable,” he said. “Once it lands, it's stuck there. We have problems sometimes with interference. It's older technology.”

Engelhardt said the team requested the Throwbot at least two years ago. Region 13 — a cooperative task force made up of representatives from the city and agencies in 13 Western Pennsylvania counties — paid more than $200,000 in February for 15 of the devices.

Region 13 Chairman Wes Hill said the task force used Department of Homeland Security money to buy them at $13,600 apiece.

The remote-controlled Throwbots weigh about a pound. Once tossed into a structure, they can move around on two wheels and an axle to conduct video and audio surveillance, said Jack Klobucar, spokesman for ReconRobotics.

“It's useful to the tactical team because otherwise they'd be going in blind, which would be pretty dangerous for them,” Klobucar said. “They can get a lot of information from a fairly short period of time from the little robot.”

Ray DeMichiei, Pittsburgh's deputy director of emergency management, said he is reviewing who should get the devices. He said the SWAT team, the bomb squad and the Hazmat unit are candidates, but expects SWAT to receive the Throwbot.

“I think we're going to get a resolution probably in the next 10 days or so,” DeMichiei said Thursday. “There's no application for it other than SWAT.”

Engelhardt said because the team received no response from the city's Emergency Management Agency, members on Wednesday asked that the police department buy its own device.

“If it's sitting in a warehouse, inaccessible to everybody, and nobody is training on it, it isn't of use to anybody,” Engelhardt said. “I don't know what the disconnect is.”

Allegheny, Butler, Greene, Indiana, and Lawrence counties keep their devices with their emergency-management agencies. Allegheny County spokeswoman Amie Downs said the emergency service department is familiarizing itself with the Throwbot.

“It's a very nice device to have for the emergency responders,” said Steven Bicehouse, director of the Butler County Department of Emergency Services. “Butler County doesn't have a dedicated entry team, so it's tough to deploy through one agency.”

Emergency directors in Cambria and Armstrong counties said they turned their devices over to specialized law enforcement units.

“I'm not a police officer, so it doesn't do any good for me to have it here,” Armstrong County Public Safety Director Randall Brozenick said.

Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

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