While some robots learn to deliver pizza, these are saving lives

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(Bloomberg) -- While Silicon Valley touts new robots that will greet you at the airport, deliver Cheetos to your hotel room or get you a pizza in a hurry, other machines have had more-serious jobs for decades.

Take Northrop Grumman Remotec’s products. The robotics division of the defense contractor started life more than 20 years ago as a maker of machines that move radioactive materials around government research labs. From there, the devices evolved into bomb-disposal aids, and were sent into other situations that the military or law enforcement deemed too risky for humans.

The Remotec bots were also given the ability to rip open a car, sniff out hazardous chemicals, cut a vest off a suicide bomber, blast an explosive with water to render it safe and fire guns at people. They can see in the dark, climb stairs, communicate with hostages and hostage takers, and lift more than the weight of an average person with ease.

In addition to their use in Israel and Iraq by the military, more than 400 police departments in the U.S. have them. Northrop Grumman reckons that number will rise as perceived threats increase, creating demand more powerful and capable robots.

For the California Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies nationwide, robots were one of the tools they acquired in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The CHP team charged with keeping the state capitol safe uses a Northorp Grumman robot it got in 2005 for bomb disposal and other security tasks.

``Unfortunately, there are bad guys that are planting, or making these things, and they see us and what we do in terms of how we handle these packages, and what they are continually trying to do is find out ways to circumvent our technology,'' said Sergeant Dave Kessler, who heads the CHP's bomb-disposal unit. ``The need for this technology is there, and the need for further, more advanced technology, is always there.''

In an assault course at the back of Northrop Grumman Corp.'s plant in Clinton, Tennessee, the latest robot, the FX, climbed stairs and squeezed through narrow spaces with ease, despite its 900-pound bulk. Built with feed-back from customers, it is much larger than predecessors and has an arm capable of almost balletic articulation -- even while lifting a car door by grasping the thin window frame.

"In the past, a robot could pick up normally 100 pounds,'' said Walt Werner, director of Northrop Grumman Remotec. ``Some of the bombs that have been placed in cars are much heavier." The bomb planted in New York's Times Square in 2010 was too heavy for robots to pick up, he noted.

It's dangerous work, even for robots. When the FX rolled out to the test range, it passed an older model still showing the damage it sustained trying to defuse a bomb in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 2016. The company is proud of its robots' record in saving lives. Engineers are on call night and day to diagnose problems and make sure the robots are there for customers in emergencies. They also restore machines that have been damaged beyond economic repair because their owners have become attached to them and want them back.

The most controversial use of one of the robots came in Dallas last July when a U.S. army veteran killed five policemen and wounded seven others. A Remotec robot was used to detonate an explosive next to the shooter. He saw it coming and shot at it but couldn’t stop it. The unit survived his assault and the explosion which killed the man. Northrop Grumman doesn’t discuss such incidents and refers inquiries to the owners and operators of its products.

Some tech companies are trying to create a world where everyone has an autonomous robot helper. Northrop Grumman says its robots won't be left alone to take the life-or-death decisions that their human operators sometimes have to make. Northrop's customers agree that a future where robots can perform the full range of law enforcement jobs isn't going to happen in our lifetimes.

``There's just too many steps, too many issues involved there in terms of safety and ramifications to actions to just send a robot,'' said the CHP's Kessler. ``You need the human element involved."

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