For SWAT team, zippy robot has already shown its worth

EVERETT — With a squeaky whir, the robot zooms across parking lots, up stairs and into tight corners.

About the size of a house cat, the “Avatar Micro” robot is on special deployment to the Snohomish County sheriff’s Special Weapons and Tactics team.

“It is very zippy,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Shari Ireton said.

The robot manufacturer, RoboteX, of Palo Alto, Calif., is letting the SWAT team borrow the robot for free. The robot has multiple cameras and a two-way radio. It can scout dangerous situations and establish communication between police and suspects.

“You send this thing anywhere you don’t want to send a human,” said Adam Fine, team lead for RoboteX business development.

The sheriff’s SWAT team used the robot to help defuse at least one high-profile police operation.

On May 19, a Marysville man allegedly assaulted his girlfriend and then refused to come outside.

Police surrounded the apartment complex. They knew he was armed and that he allegedly had made suicidal threats.

At Marysville officers’ request, the sheriff’s SWAT team sent in the robot. They got the man talking and persuaded him to surrender. Nobody was injured during the arrest.

The robot helped resolve a dangerous situation more quickly than traditional tactical options, Lt. Rob Palmer said.

Direct communication is vital in SWAT calls where danger exists not just for police and innocent people nearby, but for the suspects themselves.

“It’s about getting them into custody and out safely,” Palmer said.

In addition, resolving high-risk situations quickly may save the department money. SWAT operations can be lengthy and manpower-intensive, he said.

Sgt. Matt Onderbeke leads the sheriff’s crisis negotiation team.

When someone is angry or despondent, shouting at them or using a bull-horn isn’t always the best way to communicate, Onderbeke said. The robot has a radio, but it also can be used to deliver a cellphone. Often, the person holed up with a gun wants to talk to someone about what’s bothering them.

“We need to get them from crisis, and panic, to settle down and start making good decisions,” Onderbeke said. “This gives me the ability to listen and respond to what they’re saying.”

The robot is easier to retrieve or redeploy than older crisis-communication technology, which can be clunky and complicated to maneuver, Onderbeke said. Without the robot or an open phone line, the sheriff’s office often must rely on a phone in a strong box that can be hurled through windows.

The SWAT team is expected to have use of the robot for roughly a year. The robot won’t be used for surveillance, or to secretly gather audio or video.

For now, it’s just one more tool they can use, Onderbeke said.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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