Working with a SWAT team responding to an urgent call about a man with a gun, Pointman Tactical suddenly took four bullets and went down. That isn’t as dire as it sounds, though, because Pointman Tactical was merely a robot that a police S.W.A.T. team in Bellevue, Neb., was using in October 2012 to enter and inspect a suspect’s garage — when the gunman suddenly opened fire.
The lesson was clear, however. The device, properly known as a Pointman Tactical Robot, had probed into the garage with its camera — and took gunfire that otherwise might have hit police officers, rather than simply damaging a machine.
“Any time a robot gets shot it’s a good thing, actually, because it means that a person wasn’t there to take that round,” said Alex Kaufman, marketing director for Applied Research Associates, the Albuquerque-based research and engineering company that manufactures Pointman.
More than a thousand miles away from that gunfire in Bellevue, it’s also a lesson not lost on the U.S. Border Patrol, which recently bought three Pointman robots to help agents through tunnels dug by smugglers along the Mexico-Arizona border.
The Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, which encompasses 262 miles of international border from the Yuma County line eastward to the New Mexico line, will keep two of the robots and send a third to the San Diego sector. The Pointman, which works by remote control, weighs about 18 pounds, including its control unit. It has a camera attached, and can lay flat and even fit underneath a car. Its main purpose is to detect any hazards or other perils before an agent decides whether to physically enter a tunnel.
With the ability to navigate quickly, the Pointman saves time, the agency says. On a remote screen, an agent can see what the robot sees, can turn the device 360 degrees, and can move it back and forth along a passageway.
The camera works in daylight, low light and complete darkness, said Scott Stewart, an agent who is a spokesman for the Border’s Patrol Tucson Sector. The Pointman isn’t the first robot Border Patrol in Tucson has worked with, but it is smaller, lighter and more maneuverable than the previous one.
The original robot is tethered, while the Pointman is wireless. But the original robot can also maneuver through running water – a consideration in border regions like Nogales, where tunnel-makers sometimes also hook into drainage networks. So it isn’t being replaced, Stewart said, adding:
“The new robot’s just like having another tool on your belt that allows you to assess the situation and the tunnel and determine which would be the most effective tool to use at that time and place.” The three robots cost the Border Patrol $94,000 collectively, bought with money seized from criminal activity, he said.
The tunnels, which smugglers dig to move people, drugs and weapons across the border, sometimes connect with sewage tunnels and pipes in Nogales. But there are also smaller, rudimentary tunnels that are difficult for an agent to navigate. Agents who do navigate the tunnels are at risk of poor air quality, and water runoff from the streets, not to mention collapse of the structure itself.
Applied Research Associates, created the Pointman primarily for S.W.A.T. teams, but the company says it has also sold the devices to bomb squads and some fire teams. The company has been making the Pointman since 2007, with analog and digital models.
“It’s really designed to be able to be put into a building or a place where you don’t want to put a person. So it’s a set of eyes where you don’t want to put people because maybe it’s dangerous. You want to know what’s going on there first,” Kaufman said.
Stewart said that officers “value the importance of those robots. They’re limiting that risk that a Border Patrol agent is putting him or herself in being in one of those tunnels, or in a dangerous situation.”