Robot Cop in Times Square, a Fiasco from the Start, Quietly Gets Scrapped by NYPD

The NYPD’s security robot is no longer being used in the transit system. Our contributor said it had been a fiasco from the start. A police spokesperson confirmed the experiment is over. “The Knightscope K5 has completed its pilot deployment in the NYC subway system,” an NYPD spokesperson confirmed.

| 09 Feb 2024 | 02:37

When, this September, Mayor Eric Adams, flanked by police captains, unveiled the new police robot patrolling the Times-Square 42nd-Street Station, he projected confidence. “Eventually,” he said, “this is going to be a part of the fabric of our subway system.”

“The NYPD must be at the forefront of technology and be two steps ahead of those who would use it to hurt New Yorkers,” said Mayor Adams.

But two months later, as protestors against the Israel-Hamas War marched above ground, a dozen police officers guarded the robot, which stood behind metal barricades, turned off. “We’re pretty much guarding it,” said one cop. Asked what the robot did, they said they “don’t know.”

The K5 Security Robot, developed by a California-based firm called Knightscope, functions as a moving security camera and also provides ‘physical deterrence.’ The robot’s ‘pay,’ at approximately $8 an hour, has been much touted. “This is below minimum wage,” said Mayor Adams during his announcement. “No bathroom breaks, no meal breaks. This is a good investment.”

But at the NYPD starting wage of $27 an hour, the dozen cops guarding the robot cost the City, each hour, approximately $324–all to protect a robot that literally did nothing: it’s ‘shift’ is from midnight to 6 a.m.

When I went to watch it on duty, I found a squat, blue-and-white, R2D2-like machine which wheeled between two subway entrances and their adjoining hallway; it cannot go down stairs. Teenagers laughed and took pictures. Older commuters side-eyed the robot as they passed by. Panhandlers mumbled in its general direction, while the two police officers assigned to guard it followed slowly behind, playing on their phones and, from time to time, looking dejectedly up at their charge.

“One time someone tried to throw their coffee at it,” Officer Saini, one of the two who were guarding it at the time told me. “But he was just a crazy guy.”

“Are you going to get pranksters? Yes,” Mayor Adams said back then. “If anyone destroys this or vandalizes this, they’re going to be captured on video and we’re going to prosecute them.”

As the time went on and the crowds thinned, the robot randomly shuffled back and forth, blinking, beeping, taking 360 degree video footage of what was, except for me, an empty hallway.

“It’s a hunk of junk,” said commuter Alex Henry, 21.

“If that’s where my $2.90 is going, I want a refund,” said Winter Runlan, 21.

By its supporters, the robot had been called “a good investment,” “efficient,” “the future of public safety”; by its opponents, “surveillance theater,” a threat to privacy, a step towards mass surveillance.

But discussions of the robot’s utility as a moving camera, or its danger as a threat to privacy, all obscure the fact that the K5’s record is largely one of incompetence. In Washington D.C., the K5 – depressed, perhaps, by its lack of pay–drove itself into a water fountain. More alarmingly, a K5 ran over a child in a California mall. The child lived, but the robot, immediately taken out of service, did not. “It’s a trash can on wheels,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

When, during its shift at 42nd-Street, an Emergency Exit alarm went off at one of the entrances, the robot raced to the scene, only to find the station empty, the perpetrators gone, the door shut but the alarm still shrieking.

The NYPD confirmed the experiment has ground to a halt. “The Knightscope K5 has completed its pilot deployment in the NYC subway system.”