Robot Cop : New Weapon Can Go Places Where Humans Fear to Tread

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It has neither the hypersensibility of Star Wars' R2D2 nor the firepower of RoboCop.

But Andros, the new robot the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department unveiled Tuesday, shares with its cinematic forebears the ability to do things that humans would prefer not to.

Deputies say it's a big step forward in the arms race--the one against bombers, barricaded gunmen and hostage-takers. Andros is no two-legged humanoid, but resembles a small tank, with a 6-foot arm swivel-mounted where a tank's main gun would be.

It is larger than a toy but not big enough to look threatening. Yet, like a human, it can insert a key and open a door, climb stairs, ford a shallow stream, disarm a bomb, fire a shotgun and film a crime scene.

Its remote operators can--by way of on-board two-way speakers and two-way television cameras--negotiate "face to face" with a barricaded suspect or a hostage-taker. Deputies say they expect they will be using the $104,000 robot about three times a month, to reduce the risk to the bomb squad and Special Enforcement Bureau, the department's SWAT team.

Andros, made of heavy-gauge steel, weighs 700 pounds and creaks along on rubber treads at a top speed of 150 feet per minute. In a demonstration in East Los Angeles on Tuesday, Andros plucked a "bomb" from beneath a car, lumbered across an athletic field and dropped it into a heavily reinforced bomb containment barrel.

Then, to achieve what sheriff's media representatives called a "good visual" for the benefit of the press, bomb squad members detonated a small black powder charge just as the "bomb"--a smoking military ammunition box--was dropped inside the chamber.

Andros' abilities lend themselves to such gee-whiz displays, said Undersheriff Robert Edmonds, "but we obviously feel this robot is more than that." He predicted that it will "significantly reduce the risk to our bomb squad members and our people who deal with barricade situations."

The robot, tethered to a 328-foot electric cord, is maneuvered by a joystick like those for video games. The operator works Andros from inside the robot's carrying van, in front of a full-color television screen.

In selecting Andros from the new generation of robots, Edmonds said, the department was attracted by its nimbleness: Where other robots use RoboCop-like brawn to break down doors and intimidate suspects, Andros' long suit is manual dexterity.

"It takes a lot of finesse to turn a key and open a door and to climb stairs," he said. "It's our belief that those skills will prove valuable in the long run."

The finer points of key-turning and shotgun-wielding will have to wait until Andros' accessories--mechanical fingers--arrive from the manufacturer in a few weeks.

Andros' manufacturer, Remotec Inc. of Oak Ridge, Tenn., has sold units to the New York Police Department, the FBI and the Navy, said sheriff's spokesman Pat Hunter.

In 1984, the Los Angeles Police Department purchased a robot named Felix for the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, said Cmdr. William Booth. "But we've only used it a half-dozen times a year on suspicious packages. I understand that technology has improved somewhat."

Since the 1940s, when the Sheriff's Department first designated specialists for bomb detonation, no deputy has been hurt working on a bomb, Edmonds said.

But the department is mindful that two LAPD bomb squad veterans were killed in 1986 dismantling a pipe bomb in North Hollywood. "We've been fortunate," said Edmonds. "But that hasn't made us forget that handling bombs is dangerous work."

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