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Sheriff’s Department Uses Robots to Disarm Bombs

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Roadside bombs are deadly wartime weapons. Some estimates blame them for one third of all American deaths in Iraq. Now U.S. law enforcement has introduced robots to help protect local communities from improvised explosives. In San Diego County, the sheriff’s department uses the new device to disarm bombs and protect deputies on dangerous assignments. Rebecca Tolin has that report.

John Rutledge, SWAT team leader: For us to be called out, it’s a very dangerous suspect, probably armed with some type of weapon. And its just not a situation where the regular, patrolled officer or deputy wants to put himself in going to this barricaded or locked-up building to capture this suspect who knows you're coming in after him.

A barricaded suspect who’s committed a crime, now holed up in his house with a gun or a bomb -- it’s a swat call. The specially trained team decides to enter by force. Deputies blow up the front door. But before SWAT officers enter the unknown, they send in their secret weapon: The Mark 2, a 140-pound remote controlled robot. On this day, it’s used in a training exercise. But deputies rely on the new technology for real-world calls.

Rutledge: We can send in a small inanimate robot to do some of the stuff we do such as check rooms, crawl up stairs, actually search for the suspect as we've done in the past, and maybe even talk the suspect into coming out.

Eric Berblinger, Bomb and Arson Unit detective : We decided to send a robot in ahead of the entry team. And the way this helps us, we're able to put a tool in harms way versus a person, in a sense, clearing a certain area of the building following up the entry team behind the robot.

In this operation, detective Eric Berblinger is operating the robot from a remote command center, just outside the house.

Berblinger: Now I'm building a little bit of space between myself and entry team.

Using a laptop computer, he moves the robot around the house, scanning each room. The swat team follows behind to arrest the suspect. Deputies say they feel safer with their robotic helpers. And they say law enforcement – like the military -- is increasingly using technology.

Rutledge: I talked to some of the older, senior SWAT guys and all they were issued was a helmet and an M-16. Now we're using robots, fiber optics, all kinds of high-tech equipment to make us better swat operators to make it safer for ourselves and the public.

Whether its for a SWAT operation or a bomb threat, deputies use robots to track their suspects remotely. Using 4 built-in cameras, they capture evidence and suspects on tape.

Berblinger: When we render a device safe generally speaking it goes away, it gets obliterated. So from an investigative standpoint, that's not very good for us. We need that evidence. So we'll take pictures of a device before we render it safe and afterwards for evidentiary purposes.

Detective Berblinger is talking about the Bomb & Arson Unit, which relies heavily on the Mark Two. Each of the team’s six technicians has his own robot. In this training exercise, deputies are investigating a suspicious package.

Berblinger : Everything we get called on is a bomb until we say it’s not a bomb.

Ronny Cox, Bomb and Arson Unit detective: There's always risk. Every call is risk. Every call. Because if we're called, we presume we have an explosive.

In San Diego County, deputies find everything from military ordnances to pipe bombs.

Cox: in the back country and what not, we do come across a lot of pipe bombs. During the summer, kids love science class, so they discover acid bombs and dry ice bombs and things of that nature and those will kill you too.

The Mark Two can disarm the explosive without putting deputies at risk.

Berblinger : When I get right next to the device I'll use my zoom camera. And I'll zoom in on the device and determine whether or not it actually is an explosive or not.

In this case, Berblinger moves the robot in for surveillance.

Berblinger: Here is the other pipe bomb.

And finds two pipe bombs. Without sending a man near the box, the Mark Two – equipped with ammunition – destroys the bombs.

Berblinger : The idea is to use these machines, this technology, to get the human being away from the danger and then put the robot or whatever technology you need, in harm's way versus the technician.

Here’s the other option. Same call of a suspicious package. But before the bomb squad got equipped with robots, it had to send a heavily outfitted detective to investigate.

Cox: you can only stay in the suit about 20 minutes comfortably. After that you can, depending on conditions, can get very fatigued, very quickly.

Ronny Cox wears a 160-pound suit to protect him from bomb fragments.

But it won’t shelter him from the brute force of an explosion. And the cumbersome garb takes its toll on detectives. After Cox eyeballs the pipe bombs, he sets the explosives by hand and flees the scene.

In some cases, a human being still has to go into the scene. But for many calls, detectives say their robots spare injuries, even lives.

Cox: it's a tremendous tool, not only for the bomb world but also for the SWAT, special enforcement detail.

Berblinger : I couldn't measure the progression having robots is right now. It's phenomenal.

The San Diego County sheriff’s department added one robot per detective in August of this year. They bought the robots at a cost of $97,000 each, thanks to grant money from the Department of Homeland Security.

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