Patrolman Kellen Steele demonstrates the Kingsport Police Department's new robot. Photo by David Grace.
KINGSPORT — Meet the newest member of the Kingsport Police Department.
She’s 26-16-6, enjoys talking to potentially hostile people and exploring unknown areas in the dark. Turn-offs include locked doors, armed criminals and really tall steps.
“Elvira” is the newest member of the KPD SWAT team — an Avatar I tactical robot from the California-based company Robotex Inc. The SWAT team attended a tactical school in Washington, D.C., back in September and won the $7,500 robot in a drawing.
“We were lucky enough to be the one picked,” said Kellen Steele, a member of the department’s SWAT team.
At its core, the robot is essentially just like a remote-controlled car or truck, able to pull 360s, easily go backward and forward with a flick of the thumbstick and speed off at a pretty good clip.
The most obvious difference is, the robot looks like a small, black tank and is probably a little tougher than your average RC vehicle. It is made with aircraft-grade aluminum, includes a military-grade battery and has a range of 200 meters.
And Elvira’s got a few extra perks under the hood, such as all-terrain tracks to get her over difficult terrain, stair-climbing and self-righting abilities, a two-way audio system allowing police officers to communicate with people, and advanced optics, including a front-mounted drive camera and a 360-degree Pan-Tilt-Zoom camera — both with night-vision capabilities — that feed back to the color monitor in the hand-held controls.
“With the two-way microphone we can go in, talk to a suspect and hear what they’re saying and talk back to them,” Steele said. “If we do encounter somebody in a room, it might be a situation where the negotiator would be involved and this gives us the opportunity to communicate with them without seeing one of us.
“A lot of times they see us and it freaks them out. Now we can talk without putting anyone in harm.”
Though Elvira may be tougher than your average RC car, she’s not bulletproof and cannot open doors like other bomb-disposal robots, but she is water resistant, could likely be used underwater and if flipped on her back, she can right herself.
“Any time we can use technology to gain more information or perform surveillance of a situation rather than putting officers’ lives at risk, that’s obviously a win-win for us,” said Tom Patton, public information officer for the KPD.
Steele said the robot will be used primarily for surveillance and communication.
“If we had the possibility of an armed subject inside a building and we’re not quite sure where the person is, instead of sending in the officer, we could send in the robot and take a look around to see if we can find the person before we send the (SWAT) team in,” Steele said. “It’s one of the tools we’re going to be using constantly. I have no doubt it will be put to good use.”