killer robot

Dear Evil Engineer: Can I replace my useless henchmen with robot guards?

Image credit: Dreamstime

A villain is sick of their plans being compromised by hopeless henchmen. Could they be replaced with autonomous systems?

Dear Evil Engineer,

The henchmen who guard my facilities are a liability. I employ two dozen beefy men who couldn’t shoot a barn door, and consistently lose fist fights with hopelessly outnumbered do-gooders trying to interfere with my schemes. The final straw came when three of my guards were knocked out with blows to the head and had their uniforms and passes stolen by a gang of meddlers, who then impersonated them to gain access to my server room and disrupt a scheme I had been working on for months

With several schemes in the pipeline in Q3 and Q4, I am concerned that my henchmen will continue to compromise my hard work. Their contract comes to an end in January; this cannot come quickly enough. When the time comes, could I replace them with robots?


A weary villain


Dear villain,

Please accept my sympathy for your foiled schemes. You are clearly deeply frustrated by your henchmen’s stupidity, but I promise that robots are capable of finding previously unimaginable ways to do stupid things too. It is risky, complex, and expensive to eliminate the human element in physical security but there are plenty of technological solutions to help deter and detect intruders.

You say that you are interested in robots; well, there are a number of commercially available security robots. Perhaps the best-known brand is Knightscope, which offers a range of white, futuristic looking robots for indoor and outdoor patrol. You may recognise the accident-prone K5. This adult-sized, bullet-shaped robot has made headlines for throwing itself into a water fountain, a hit-and-run incident with a toddler, being knocked over by a drunk man, ignoring a woman who pressed its emergency alert button to report a fight, and allegedly getting smeared with barbecue sauce and faeces while keeping homeless folk from sleeping outside some offices.

Despite these faux pas, the K5 is well regarded as a security tool. Like the rest of Knightscope’s range, it is completely slathered in sensors and offers a range of helpful detection tools, such as thermal anomaly detection. However, it cannot interfere when it detects something suspicious.

The same could be said for all security robots. In 2017, the Dubai police set their first robot ‘officer’ on patrol, collecting fines, accepting crime reports, and dispensing information. The SMP and Cobalt security robots are loaded with sensors, and the O-R3 from OSTAW even has a built-in drone for observing suspicious behaviour by air. They may be marketed as robot security guards, but they are essentially extravagant CCTV cameras on patrol. Humans are still needed to step in when something goes wrong.

There is no known robot that can do all the things a human security guard can. To be able to stop and restrain a suspicious person, many observations, judgements and movements have to be taken very quickly in an inherently chaotic context. This may come naturally to a person, but is beyond what the most sophisticated autonomous robots are currently capable of.

As long as you are realistic about the limitations of these security robots, they may be a worthwhile investment. Like CCTV cameras, they work as deterrents (what Knightscope calls “force-multiplying physical deterrence”) and can do a good job of detecting suspicious behaviour. However, you will need to look to other autonomous systems to respond to intruders who are successful in breaking into your facilities.

Autonomous weapons systems are used by armed forces around the world, and have been for decades. Most attention is paid to the development of autonomous military vehicles like drones, submarines and tanks: all impressive works of engineering but unsuitable for patrolling private indoor facilities. Instead, you could consider installing smaller-scale sentry guns in sensitive locations.

There are a handful of sentry guns with sophisticated systems for sensing and aiming at targets before firing. The best in the world is likely to be DoDAAM’s Super aEgis II, which can lock on to vehicles or humans up to 3km away and give a verbal warning before firing. The system has been deployed in the Arabian Peninsula and the Korean Demilitarised Zone (configured to require human confirmation before firing). Other brands are available.

I would strongly suggest making some alterations to your off-the-shelf sentry gun before deploying it in your facilities. For instance, the Super aEgis II is designed to operate a machine gun or rifle; why not incorporate a tranquiliser gun instead and set it to send you a push notification every time it fires? This way, you will be able to take any intruders captive and kill them at your leisure without the risk of lethal misfire harming you and your employees.

You could also explore incorporating facial-recognition tools and whitelisting the faces of trusted individuals, although that would require putting a lot of faith in software, which can be very inaccurate. You could even consider mounting a sentry gun atop a security robot to patrol your facilities. Would building death machines to patrol your facilities be overkill? Possibly. But wouldn’t it be a laugh?

Despite the opportunity for some evil engineering here, I believe that ramping up tried and- tested security measures to deter, detect, and respond to intruders would be a more reliable and cost-effective option. This means extensive and visible monitoring throughout your facilities (including security robots, if your budget allows), multi-factor authorisation to access all restricted spaces, and – I’m sorry to say – well-trained human security guards to respond to intruders. Bonne chance!

The Evil Engineer

PS: Please tag me on Villainstagram if you do build your own robot security guard – I love seeing what the community is getting up to while we remain in quarantine.

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