Baltimore Co. buys robots to aid policein defusing bombs


RoboCop is coming to Baltimore County. Police there have County Council approval to purchase a robot to handle bomb threats and hostage situations.

"We'll send it out on any situation where an officer's life would be in jeopardy," said Detective James Giebel, one of two officers in the county police bomb squad unit where the robot will be assigned.

Detective Giebel said that because of competitive bidding requirements, the robot may not be arriving for another three to ++ five months.

The robot will cost an estimated $78,500 and will be equipped with a remote control panel, allowing an operator to manipulate a mechanical arm and to monitor activities from 300 feet away through two cameras, he said.

The mechanical arm also will be equipped to wield a shotgun capable of disarming potential exploding devices by shooting them out, he said.

Detective Giebel acknowledged that someone who takes hostages may not be receptive to a mechanical intruder -- and could shoot it to pieces -- but said it's worth the risk.

"We could underwrite its cost a lot easier than the cost and the pain involved in having a cop getting shot in the face," he said.

He said that the need for such a device has existed for years but that the robot has eluded the police department's grasp because of fiscal constraints.

Once it arrives, the robot will join similar robots being used by Prince George's County Police, the U.S. Capital Park Police and the Maryland state fire marshal, he said.

County police respond to about 50 bomb threats a year, with roughly half turning out to be calls involving potential explosives.

"I'd like to see us get it as soon as possible. Every time you go out on a call you'd like to have something like this," he said.

Detective Giebel said that a robot would have been helpful most recently in the March 2 destruction of 88 sticks of vintage dynamite, which were found by the widow of a Cockeysville farmer who had collected and stored them in their barn before he died.

Each stick had to be individually walked to the bomb squad's transport trailer. From there, it was carefully trucked to the Parkton Landfill, where it was detonated. The process was a 19-hour operation.

It could also help police communicate with someone holding hostages who refuse to come to a phone or could be used to help meet hostage demands, such as when a group took over the State Employees Credit Union Building in Towson.

"If the guy [holding the hostages] wants a six-pack of Pepsi, we'll run it up on the robot," he said.

The money used to make the purchase will come from drug seizure assets distributed by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of the federal asset seizure law.

County police have so far heard sales pitches from a handful of robot makers, including Remotech, Inc., which has sold robots to police departments around the world.

It also has sold six robots to the U.S. Air Force to help clear minefields in Kuwait, according to a company spokesman.

Sammy L. Jones, marketing representative for the Oakridge, Tenn., firm, said county police hope to purchase the "Little Andros, Mark VI," a Belgian-designed model that stands 32 inches tall.

The Little Andros is 17 inches wide, enabling it to negotiate the aisles of passenger planes so that it can help out in hostage situations, Mr. Jones said. It can be equipped with two cameras and a two-way radio that would allow police to speak with anyone within listening range.

"It's an extremely useful piece of equipment," he said.

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