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Robots are Rolling into Cities in Texas for a Variety of Purposes, including Security

The Robots are coming to a city near you. We all knew the day was coming in light of living in the age of computers, and the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence.

Robots have been used by law enforcement for a few decades to aid with explosive devices. For some time, the U.S. military has funded the development and marketing of robots to municipal law enforcement.

It isn’t difficult to understand why it is preferable to use a robot to retrieve a device to minimize human injury or casualties, but at least one city has used one to deliver a weapon. In July 2016, Dallas police officers used a robot to deliver an explosive device to a suspect believed to have killed five law enforcement officers.

The suspect had gone on a rampage in downtown Dallas targeting law enforcement officers and the Dallas Police Department felt it had no choice but to use the robot as a weapon, ending in the suspect’s death. It was the first time a law enforcement agency in the United States used a robot for the purpose of targeting a human suspect. The robot was not designed for that purpose but it was the safest way to stop the suspect from shooting and killing additional victims; this was achieved by strapping a bomb to the robot and sending it into the suspect’s hiding place.

In Los Angeles in 2016, the L.A. Sheriff’s Department cornered a murder suspect they could view by helicopter. A robot was sent in to obtain another visual; then, they distracted the suspect and the robot was able to approach and grab the gun. The robot was sent back in to lift the wire fencing to expose the suspect’s hiding place.

Several Texas Cities have benefitted from Federal Urban Area Security Initiative grants that were created to aid dense urban cities in the fight against terrorism. The Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) Program is an almost $600 million grant program of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), administered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to provide funding to agencies across the United States. Houston in 2017 used some of their UASI grant money to fund a new notification system to city residents providing tools to save lives, but not for robots.

Robots in Dallas are in the news again for an entirely different purpose: delivery. A new six-month pilot program will bring electronic robotic devices to the sidewalks in Dallas. City council recently approved a pilot program allowing a robotic delivery company to serve city businesses allowing small robots that travel no faster than 5 mph. A two-year robot pilot program was approved in Austin in 2017, and similar robots are in use for delivery purposes in and around Austin, Texas. In both cities, the robots are restricted by size so as not to obstruct sidewalks and for the duration of the Dallas pilot program robots will require human supervision.

Should the program work, city leaders will have to determine what ordinances are necessary to regulate robots in the city. A successful program could be a solution to traffic problems and air pollution issues as fewer cars and trucks emitting exhaust will be on the roads. The two-year time limit on Austin’s pilot program is not a coincidence. The program will end in time for state legislators to possibly review and adopt statewide regulation for delivery robots in January 2019 when the 186th Texas legislative session begins. Watch out Texas cities, the robots are coming.

Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our municipal law practice can be found here.

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