Armed Robots On Pause With San Francisco Police

The issue of armed police robots is a contentious one. And while the U.S. is pulling back from the idea, Nigeria’s national police have just received their first shipment of armed drones from Turkey.

On December 6, officials in San Francisco reversed a previous decision and voted to temporarily ban the police department from deploying robots able to use lethal force. Many U.S. departments already use tracked, remote controlled devices for bomb disposal. One of the earliest was “Leroy,” a British Wheelbarrow bomb disposal robot which served with Cleveland’s police department from 1974. Such machines keep the bomb display tech at a safe distance from a suspect device and are credited with saving many lives.

The Songar can carry an automatic rifle and a grenade launcher, or four individual grenade … [+] launchers,

Asisgard

In 2016, Dallas police strapped a bomb to one of their robots and used it to blow up an active shooter after five officers had been killed and seven wounded. This provoked a major backlash about police use of force but ultimately no charges were brought against the police.

Unsurprising then that the San Francisco board of supervisors’ 8-3 vote to permit police to use lethally-armed machines in certain extreme cases would be controversial and spark protests, generating international attention from the news media. It is equally unsurprising that the board of supervisors should put plans for armed robots on pause while the debate continues.

While these armed robots are not autonomous, just remote-controlled by a human operator, like the Reapers and other drones used by the military, the decision is seen as a victory for the campaign against killer robots and other groups concerned about the use of deadly force being dehumanized.

Meanwhile though, away from the glow of the world’s media, a very different scenario is unfolding in Nigeria. Turkish drone makers Asisgard recently announced the completion of their contract to supply the Nigerian police force with Songar armed drones. The number of drones involved and the value of the contract were not stated.

The Songar is a small drone with eight rotor blades carrying an automatic rifle on a stabilized mount, which was first delivered to the Turkish military in 2019. The developers claim that the advanced aiming system’s recoil compensation and stabilization allow it to hit a target six inches across from two hundred meters.

The 5.56mm rifle can also carry an underbarrel grenade launcher, or a quad pack of grenade launchers, which can fire a full range of 40mm grenades. These include nonlethal options such as tear gas and smoke to disperse crowds.

Recent news in Nigeria shows just why police would want this type of weaponry, as they are fighting what looks like a literal war against large gangs of heavily armed criminals. In one series of attacks earlier this year, gangsters on motorcycles rode through villages, killing over 200 people. The gangs typically kidnap people for ransom and steal cattle. In 2021, gangs in Nigeria reportedly killed more than 2,600 people. Security forces said they killed 537 ‘armed bandits’ in one region alone 2021.

The gang wars originated with conflicts between farmers and cattle herders over land and water, but now have a momentum of their own. Criminals typically hide out in remote forested areas where poorly-equipped police and military forces have trouble finding them.

The Turkish Songar drones will give Nigerian police significant new capability to locate suspects from the air, track and engage them without putting offers at risk. Whether they have any impact depends on the police’s ability to make effective use of novel high-tech equipment; the drones only have an effective range of a couple of miles, so they will need to be in the right place at the right time.

Turkey has become a real player in the drone export business in recent years. Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones have been hailed as heroes in the war in Ukrainian, and are credited with tipping the balance in the 2020 conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. More controversially, Turkish-supplied Kargu drones are claimed to have been used in autonomous ‘killer robot’ mode in Libya in 2020.

Asisgard has been pushing Songar in the export market and has several more customers for Songar lined up, having reportedly signed deals with two more African countries and one in the Asia-Pacific region. It is not known whether these drones will be for police or military use.

Songar can fire both lethal and non-lethal grenades such as tear gas

Asisgard

Western democracies are perhaps the last places that need to worry about armed police robots. But the fact that the technology now exists and can be ordered off the shelf (or easily copied) is likely to make it attractive to authoritarian regimes with fewer checks on police powers. Expect to see a lot more armed robots in the air and on the streets in the years ahead.

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