Why UA researchers are developing robotics for Tuscaloosa police

They aren’t quite RoboCop, but researchers hope they can act as a partner in the field.

Emma Zimmerman, Contributing Writer

Research professors and students at the University are utilizing a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to design surveillance robots for the Tuscaloosa Police Department. Headed by mechanical engineering professor Nader Jalili, the project aims to bolster the safety of police officers while aiding communication with both officers and civilians.

The project aims to bolster the safety of police officers while aiding communication with both officers and civilians

He said he believes that robotics can be used for the betterment of society—and in this case, the betterment of police departments.  

The robot’s primary purpose is to minimize the number of officers being sent into potentially dangerous situations while also collecting necessary data about an environment. Stephanie Taylor, the Tuscaloosa Police Department’s public information officer, described the remote-controlled robot as “a Roomba with an iPad attached to the top of it.”  

The robots will be equipped with two-way audio and video communication technology, so they can mimic face-to-face interactions by projecting the image and voice of an officer. The technology would enable officers to communicate without putting themselves in danger. 

“My interest has always been bringing robotics into society,” Jalili said in regards to how he and his colleagues came up with this idea. 

About two years ago, Jalili began recruiting professors from other disciplines to help with his project. Darrin Griffin, director of UA’s human communications research lab, and Christian Cousin, robotics expert and assistant professor of mechanical engineering, both became integral members of Jalili’s team. 

Cousin’s role on the project was to develop a robotic platform that police officers and law enforcement officers could pilot to communicate with people over a long distance. He said the ultimate goal of the project is to expand the robots’ abilities to serve more as a partner to officers than a tool. 

“It can provide advanced warnings for the officer. It can monitor heart rate and skin conductance, which is how much the officer is sweating,” Cousin said. “So it can measure stress levels and stuff like that.”

Robots currently used by police departments were designed to survey an environment or retrieve a specific object. Cousin said one robot can cost more than $400,000. The team of UA researchers worked to minimize the cost. Their current model costs about $3,000. 

The members of the research team said the strength of these robots lies in three main activities: communicating information and data from an environment, mimicking face-to-face interactions with officers and being produced for a low cost. This project is one of the first of its kind in Alabama, and its comparatively low price tag combined with the grant from the NSF gives them the possibility to one day be utilized nationally. 

“TPD is lucky to have this ongoing partnership with UA as their researchers innovate the tools that will be used by law enforcement agencies everywhere,” Taylor said. 

The project coordinators said that working hand in hand with the police makes this project easily politicized. Griffin said the project began before George Floyd’s death and the nationwide protests that followed. As researchers, he said they are neutral and seek to improve communication. 

“As we work in the future, now that things have changed, we are going to start bringing in people from the community to share their perspectives, along with police officers, about police robots,” Griffin said. 

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has increased conversations about racial biases in the technology being built for police departments. One essay from the North Carolina Law Review suggests that the addition of cameras and recording technology could minimize the potential for racial bias in criminal allegations. Some researchers have questioned whether this technology, with audio-video communications, can remain racially unbiased.  

Because the project is taking place in the field, the variables are uncontrolled. The team brought in gatekeepers from the Tuscaloosa Police Department, Tuscaloosa Law Enforcement Academy and Jacksonville State University Center for Best Practices to guide their development of the robots. For the doctoral students working directly with the research professors, this project has been a unique opportunity. Xiaoti Fan and Roya Salehzadeh are both doctoral students on Jalili’s research team. 

Fan often had direct contact with officers, as she taught modules based on improving communication between law enforcement officers and citizens of different racial and social demographics.

“It was a great opportunity for me because not many doctoral students have the opportunity to participate in any kind of grant project,” Fan said. “I had the opportunity to get involved in training sessions and actually be able to talk to police officers and teach them about intercultural communication.”