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The Honolulu Police Department used $150,045 in federal funds intended to respond to the pandemic to acquire a robot dog named Spot, according to city spending data.
Built by the engineering and robotics company Boston Dynamics, the four-legged device can walk on various terrain, open doors, record video and even dance – as it did it in a viral music video released by the company last month.
As for its use helping Honolulu combat COVID-19, the city’s spending data says Spot was purchased to take people’s temperatures at HPD’s tent city for homeless people.
In other words, its ostensible use is as a thermometer, according to the city’s spending justification, though HPD says it can do more.
“It sounds absolutely ridiculous,” said Katrina Langford, a Haleiwa mother of two who has struggled to get rental assistance after she and her husband lost their jobs.
“I could think of a lot of better things to do with that money. It seems like people are taking temperatures everywhere and they don’t need robots to do it.”
Spot retails for $74,500, but Boston Dynamics offers add-ons that could jack up the price by tens of thousands.
HPD rejected a Civil Beat request to interview a department official about the purchase. Instead, Deputy Chief John McCarthy issued an emailed statement saying that the robot is “more than a ‘thermometer.’”
“Spot will help to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 through touchless field screening and interaction with homeless individuals in self-quarantine,” he said.
“Oftentimes, POST participants will request medical attention when exhibiting possible symptoms of COVID-19. In an effort to reduce possible exposure, the Spot robot will provide telemedicine to those individuals and can deliver medical supplies and food.”
Spot can also patrol an area and conduct continual thermal imaging to detect people’s temperature changes, according to McCarthy.
“Currently, much of this work is done by officers, some of whom are on overtime pay. In the long run, the Spot robot will save money while keeping officers safe,” he said. “Beyond the pandemic, we plan to use the Spot robot in other HPD operations.”
The robot dog was paid for by HPD’s share of federal CARES Act dollars – approximately $40 million that former Mayor Kirk Caldwell allocated to the department, according to the city’s data.
The CARES Act requires that all purchases made with its funding are “necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency,” according to the U.S. Treasury.
Spot is just one of several big-ticket expenses HPD has covered with its CARES dollars.
The spending has drawn criticism from community members, leaders like Council Chair Tommy Waters, and even police officers themselves.
“Toys, toys, toys,” said one Honolulu officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation. “Everything we could buy we would buy.”
HPD’s CARES allotment exceeded the city’s $25 million Household Relief Fund, which aimed to bail out individuals and families in need to help with rent, utilities and child care payments.
“The bulk of the money should’ve gone to individuals and families who were suffering,” said Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi.
The council’s public safety committee, which Tsuneyoshi now chairs, will discuss the purchase of the robot dog at a meeting at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard told members of the Honolulu Police Commission on Sept. 16 that CARES spending by HPD is vetted by the city’s Department of Budget and Fiscal Services and the Corporation Counsel’s office.
“This is not money they gave to us and said you can spend it … any way you want,” Ballard said. “There are very strict processes that we have to follow to spend the money and get it approved … There have been times when it has been denied and that project is just off the table.”
Brandi Higa, a spokeswoman for the mayor, declined to comment on whether the Corporation Counsel’s office felt the robot met federal requirements, citing attorney-client privilege between city lawyers and HPD.
Civil Beat asked the city what Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s stance is on the purchase of the robot dog. He declined to comment.
According to Boston Dynamics, Spot is a “stable, dynamically balanced quadruped robot” that can do what other robots and drones cannot, like climb stairs, work around obstructions and operate in “constrained environments.” The quadrupedal robots move like animals and can even pick themselves back up if they’re knocked over.
Boston Dynamics markets Spot as a useful tool in various sectors including construction, utilities, and oil and gas plants. It was used earlier this year at a construction site at Honolulu’s Queen Emma Building, Hawaii News Now reported.
The company also touts its potential public safety uses including “remotely to get eyes on dangerous situations or inspect hazardous packages from afar,” according to its website.
The Massachusetts State Police was the first law enforcement agency in the country to test out the robot dog in 2019, according to WBUR. Boston Dynamics loaned the device to the state’s bomb squad.
Since that first trial, the New York City Police Department has also brought its own Boston Dynamics “Digidog” onto the force, according to an ABC affiliate in New York.
The U.S. military is using similar technology from a company called Ghost Dynamics to enhance security and replace traditional security cameras on military bases, the Washington Post reported.
“We can see them in war zones, working with bombs, scouting, targeting, probably in 2022,” Jiren Parikh, Ghost Robotics’ chief executive, told The Post. “These can really become a warfighter’s best friend.”
At least one other government entity has acquired a robot dog for pandemic purposes: Singapore. Boston Dynamics’ Spot was deployed in a Singapore park to remind people to socially distance, Reuters reported.
A voice told passersby: “Let’s keep Singapore healthy. For your own safety and for those around you, please stand at least one meter apart. Thank you.”
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