A robotic dog walked amid rubble in Manhattan last week, surveying the site of a parking garage collapse for the New York City Fire Department. The collapse killed the garage’s long-time manager, Willis Moore, and injured five others.
Rescue crews were able to pull out the victims, but the fire department deemed the structure “very unstable,” reports BBC News. So, to protect the human first responders, the department then withdrew them from the building and sent in drones and a four-legged robot in their place. The mechanical dog walked through the site, sending information back to officials.
The deployment of the fire department’s robot came only one week after New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced a $750,000 investment in robotic dogs for the city’s police department, which was met with some pushback.
“Just one week ago, I was being criticized by all the folks in the bleachers, saying, ‘Well, why are you getting that dog?’” Adams, a former police captain and a critic of police, said, per CBS News’ Dick Brennan. “Now you see why I got the dog—to save lives.”
Designed by tech company Boston Dynamics, the remote-controlled robot called “Spot” is able to navigate through difficult terrain, collect data using an array of sensors, carry equipment and take video footage. The company’s robotic dogs have previously been used to assess the ruins in Pompeii and to inspect nuclear power plants. New York City’s fire department acquired two of these robots last year to use in situations that would be hazardous for humans.
In 2021, the city’s police department also employed a so-called “DigiDog,” but public backlash led to its early retirement. The police had controversially sent the technology into a public housing building during a hostage situation, which many viewed as alienating and an example of “misplaced priorities,” wrote the New York Times’ Mihir Zaveri in 2021.
Others criticized how much money had been put into these robots rather than other matters. “Please ask yourself: When was the last time you saw next-generation, world-class technology for education, health care, housing, etc. consistently prioritized for underserved communities like this?” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted at the time.
“The way it navigates through space gives it this very imposing profile that can be seen as creepy by a lot of human observers,” David J. Gunkel, a communications researcher at Northern Illinois University focused on the ethics of emerging technology, told Scientific American’s Sophie Bushwick in 2021. “This is all taking place in the wake of increased public scrutiny on policing and police practices—especially the militarization of the police—and [how] the police have responded to minority populations in ways that are very different from the way that they have responded to populations of white individuals.”
Gunkel told the publication that the public’s reaction might have been different if the dog were used to save someone from a fire or diffuse a bomb rather than “being brought to a housing project in support of police action.”
When New York City’s fire department first employed its robot dogs, fire officials and robotics experts said the plans to use them for public safety could help change the public perception of the technology, per the Times’ Chelsia Rose Marcius.
At the garage collapse last week, the dog was able to send video footage of the site back to the phones of nearby firefighters who were in a safe area, per Spectrum News NY1’s David Lazar.
“The great part of that is we’re able to use the technology to get information and reconnaissance without putting our firefighters’ lives and our first responders’ lives at risk,” New York City Fire Department Chief John Esposito says in a statement. “This was an extremely dangerous operation for our firefighters.”