Dallas police used a “bomb robot” to kill the suspected gunman who opened fire on police officers Thursday, killing at least five and wounding seven other police officers and two civilians.
Dallas Police Chief David Brown said Friday that after hours-long negotiations broke down with the suspect, identified as Micah Johnson, there was an exchange of gunfire.
"We saw no other option but to use our bomb robot and place a device on its extension for it to detonate where the suspect was," Brown said. "Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger. The suspect is deceased as a result of detonating the bomb."
The use of the "bomb robot" led several people on social media to question whether this was the first time police used a robot — usually deployed in surveillance or to dispose of bombs and other suspicious objects — to kill a suspect.
Remote-controlled robots are often used by police for surveillance, tracking and tearing apart suspicious packages, disassembling bombs, and in some cases using a smaller explosive device attached to the robot to detonate a possible bomb.
However, Peter Singer, a strategist at a D.C.-based think tank and founder of NeoLuddite, a technology advisory firm, told BuzzFeed News that "it's the first time, that I'm aware of," that such a bomb robot was used by police to kill a suspect. "I've not heard of any other instances of this being used by police. What I'm aware of is a similar use of it in Iraq by U.S. troops," he said. Singer said that while researching his 2009 book Wired for War, a U.S. soldier told him that troops duct-taped an explosive on a MARCbot — a small surveillance robot — to use against an insurgent.
Singer said that robots are not designed to be used in such a way. "It's not an armed robot," he said, adding that these were "ad hoc solutions" to the problem. "But I can empathize with the solution [the Dallas police] took," he said.
He said that bomb disposal robots sometimes shoot high-pressure water into a bomb to take it apart. "Controlled explosions" are also used to make the bomb explode, he said.
Harry Houck, CNN's law enforcement analyst, said, "This is the first time I've heard about this device."
Kelsey Atherton, a technology writer for Popular Science, said on Twitter that a "bomb squad robot carrying explosive in for a kill probably first in domestic US, unlikely first use ever."
Atherton said that while this was an "extraordinary use" of the robot, it was for an "extraordinary circumstance." He added that such bots were "best used in nonlethal ways."
Matt Blaze, a scientist who leads the Distributed Systems Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, tweeted his concerns about repurposing a robot "as a weapon." He also said that the bomb robot appeared to be an "improvised arrangement — not something it was designed for."
Since 2006, the Pentagon has distributed 479 bomb detonator robots to local law enforcement agencies in the U.S. through its 1033 program, according to a 2014 NPR report.
As Popular Science noted, Dallas Police used its "Explosive Ordnance Robot" when the Police Department was targeted by a gunman in June 2015. In that instance, the robot was used to deal with suspicious packages and explosive devices left outside the police headquarters, as well as to provide surveillance of the attacker's van.