United States Department of Homeland Security this week detailed ongoing work with its Science and Technology Directorate exploring the use of quadruped robot dogs on the country’s southern border. Specifically, the department is deploying these Spot-type robots to patrol stretches that could otherwise be inhospitable to human agents.
“The southern border can be an inhospitable place for humans and animals, which is exactly why a machine can excel there,” said Brenda Long of DHS in a statement linked to the news. “This C&T-led initiative focuses on Automated Ground Surveillance Vehicles, or what we call ‘AGSVs’. Essentially, the AGSV program is all about… robot dogs.”
The program is in partnership with Ghost Robots, a Philadelphia-based company that has in the past worked with large corporations such as Verizon. More recently, the company made headlines when one of its robots was seen sporting a remote-controlled sniper rifle (SWORD Defense Systems or SPUR Special Purpose Unmanned Rifle) at a trade show. It’s a line that the best-known quadrupedal robotics company, Boston Dynamics, isn’t willing to cross, despite previous conversations with DARPA.
The declared use for these robots at the border is patrolling. Systems can run autonomously or be remotely controlled, sending live video feeds to operators. There’s certainly no indication here that these robots would be equipped with any sort of weapons system, of course, despite this being what put the company on many people’s radar.
For its part, Ghost says it proudly partners with the US government and takes a largely agnostic approach to things like payload.
“We don’t do the loads. Are we going to promote and advertise any of these weapon systems? Probably not,” CEO Jiren Parikh told me in an interview last year. “This is a difficult question to answer. Because we’re selling to the military, we don’t know what they do with them. We will not dictate to our government customers how they use robots. We draw the line from where they are sold. We only sell to US and allied governments. We don’t even sell our robots to corporate customers in adversarial markets. We get a lot of questions about our robots in Russia and China. We don’t ship there, not even to our corporate customers.”
DHS cites numerous reasons for interest in technology, in addition to the often inhospitable nature of the area.
“Just like anywhere else, you have your standard criminal behavior, but along the border you can also have human smuggling, drug smuggling, as well as other contraband – including firearms or even potentially, guns. of mass destruction,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Brett Becker says in the post. “These activities can be conducted by anyone, from a single individual, to transnational criminal organizations, terrorists or hostile governments – and everything in between.”
There is no specific timeframe for deployment noted in the post, but the team is field testing robots equipped with things like night vision and are being put to work in outdoor spaces and scenarios designed to mimic residential buildings.
“Technologies like semi-autonomous drones (air, ground and even water) are used effectively as force multipliers elsewhere – and robot dogs are no different,” Long said. Given the history of the US government’s use of drones, however, it might not be the ideal connection for DHS to sing the praises of putting robots to work in the field.