Share This Page

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

| Friday, Oct. 4, 2013, 12:11 a.m.
Region 13 purchased 15 of the ReconRobotics Throwbot XTs for use by Western Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies. The 1-pound robots can be thrown as far as 120 feet and conduct audio and video surveillance.
Region 13 purchased 15 of the ReconRobotics Throwbot XTs for use by Western Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies. The 1-pound robots can be thrown up to 120 feet and conduct audio and video surveillance.

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.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.