For the SWAT operator, knowing what lies ahead is literally a matter of life and death. Real-time tactical reconnaissance is essential to making sound decisions. To this end, a variety of high-tech devices have been introduced to allow teams to see and sweep areas from positions of cover and concealment. The Recon Scout IR miniature reconnaissance robot is one of the newest and most revolutionary of such devices.
Developed for the military, the Recon Scout IR is the world’s first man-portable, throwable, mobile, tactical reconnaissance robot that can see in total darkness. Manufactured by ReconRobotics
, the Recon Scout IR employs technology developed at the University of Minnesota’s Distributed Robotics Laboratory through a research project funded in part by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA is the primary research agency of the Department of Defense.
The Recon Scout IR robot measures only 7.4 inches long and weighs just 1.2 pounds. It somewhat resembles a small dumbbell, with 3-inch diameter cast urethane wheels and a housing diameter of 1.5 inches. The self-balancer, a small tail that maintains robot orientation, has a length of 4 inches. It’s small enough to fit in a pocket or on a vest, and can be easily carried in the operator’s non-shooting hand for immediate deployment.
The Recon Scout IR is constructed of aluminum with a titanium shell for strength, durability and minimum weight. It has a matte-black stealth finish. The robot is designed to survive the punishing environment of the military battlefield. It can withstand repeated throws of 120 feet and vertical drops of 30 feet.
To deploy the Recon Scout IR, the operator simply pulls the pin (robot activation key) on the robot, turns on the hand-held Operator Control Unit (OCU), and throws or drives the robot into the area to be reconnoitered. The robot will immediately begin transmitting video to the OCU and, with the assistance of the company’s Command Monitoring Station, to a nearby command post. The entire set-up takes only seconds. No special training is required.
The Recon Scout IR is equipped with a high-resolution black and white CCD sensor (video camera). It is designed for extremely low-light capabilities and has a 0.0003 lux light sensitivity. The robot is also equipped with IR illuminators that automatically turn on when the ambient light is low. The IR emitters (illuminators) have a range of 25 feet, allowing the Recon Scout IR to see in total darkness and providing the operator with a crisp, clear image under all lighting conditions.
Camera operation is completely automatic. All camera controls are operated by built-in microprocessor-controlled circuitry. An electronic shutter automatically adjusts to varying light levels, from bright sunlight to total darkness.
The camera has a 60-degree field of vision on both the horizontal and vertical axes and can complete a 360-degree scan of a room in five seconds. Operation of the Recon Scout IR is controlled by the hand-held OCU, which weighs just 1.7 pounds. The OCU has a thumb-controlled joystick that allows the operator to easily control the movement of the robot. Only one hand is required to control the robot, leaving the other hand available for other tasks, such as deployment of a firearm or radio.
The robot has a zero turning radius and can move at a speed of one foot per second. It operates at a maximum of 20 decibels, which is quieter than a whisper. Its small size and quiet operation makes it difficult to detect as it moves.
Video from the Recon Scout IR is displayed in real time on a 3.5-inch integrated flat-screen LCD active matrix video display monitor on the OCU. The Recon Scout IR can transmit live video from at least 300 feet outdoors and 100 feet indoors (through walls, doors and windows).
An optional Recon Scout Command Monitoring Station (CMS) allows commanders to receive all video transmissions from up to 1000 feet away. The CMS includes a high-gain Yagi antenna with tripod and mount, a video receiver module with USB interface, software, coaxial cables and power cord. In addition to real-time monitoring at the command post, the CMS allows Recon Scout video to be recorded and still images to be captured as needed.
The Recon Scout IR kit includes everything required to employ the Recon Scout IR in tactical operations. Simply grab the kit and go. Each kit includes two Recon Scout IR robots; one OCU (including two removable antennas); three battery chargers (two for the robot and one for the OCU); two spare robot activation keys; a lockable, protective, hard carrying case with foam housing; a user manual; and a warranty card.
ReconRobotics now offers alternate frequency Recon Scout Robots that allow teams to operate two robots separately in the same environment at the same time. The alternate frequency Recon Scout IR kits contain a paired robot and OCU, each one clearly marked with a frequency indicator “A” for quick identification. All standard Recon Scout robots operate on frequency “B,” so there is never any overlap or disruption.
In addition to the new Recon Scout IR, the original Recon Scout, introduced in 2007, is still available from ReconRobotics. It has all the capabilities of the Recon Scout IR, except for the IR illumination. Even though it lacks supplemental IR, the standard Recon Scout still performs very well in low light situations as a result of the 0.0003 lux sensitivity of the sensor. The standard Recon Scout is available in both one- and two-robot kits, as well as a standalone addition to an existing kit.
ReconRobotics also makes a Recon Scout robot specially designed for inspecting the undercarriages of vehicles for explosives and contraband. The Recon Scout UVI was designed to meet the specialized needs of motorcade advance teams, VIP/dignitary protection teams and border inspections.
In addition to the standard one-year warranty, ReconRobotics offers an optional Recon Scout Annual Maintenance Plan (AMP) that offers repairs for non-warranty issues arising from normal wear and tear. The AMP includes one annual refurbishment that allows the robot to be sent back to ReconRobotics for a tune-up; this includes a complete inspection of the electrical and mechanical systems, cleaning, lubrication, and replacement of parts that have been damaged under normal wear and tear.
As of the time this article was written, over 100 police and security agencies use the Recon Scout and Recon Scout IR for tactical reconnaissance and high-risk operations, including the FBI, the Border Patrol, the BATFE, the National Reconnaissance Office and several special warfare branches of the U.S. military. The U.S. Army has recently placed an order for 150 Recon Scout IR robots.
The Huntington Park, CA, Police Department is one of the many law enforcement agencies now employing the Recon Scout. In May 2007, then-Assistant Chief Paul Wadley purchased the department’s first tactical reconnaissance robot, the Recon Scout. Wadley introduced the robot to the tactical team during its monthly training session.
Sergeant Ron Davis has been with the Huntington Park Police for 15 years and a member of the tactical team for the past eight years. He is currently the assistant commander of the tactical team. Davis stated that upon seeing the Recon Scout, he immediately knew that the robot would be a valuable new tool for the team.
“When we first saw the Recon Scout, we were struck by how small and quiet it was,” Davis said. “And best of all, we found out that you could throw it—over a wall, through a window or in an open entry door—and it would always land right-side up, ready to roll. You could then drive it around, and the reconnaissance video it sent back to the control unit was clear and crisp. Our minds were full of situations where we could use this technology.”
Over the next couple of months, the entire tactical team became very familiar with the operation of the Recon Scout and its control unit. The Recon Scout was used in a variety of training scenarios. When the time came to actually put it to the test, the team was ready to go.
“One of our first uses of the Recon Scout was on a patrol call to a domestic violence incident,” Davis said. “When the officers arrived, they were told that the suspect had recently left the house and entered a detached garage at the rear of the property. This garage had been converted into a living area, and when the officers checked the door, they found that it was locked. A window at the rear of the garage was open, however, so they immediately surrounded the garage area, and two of the team members grabbed the Recon Scout robot. They wanted to see if the suspect was inside the structure and whether or not he was armed before sending in the patrol officers.”
The rest of the squad gained access to the back of the garage through a neighbor’s yard and threw the Recon Scout through the window. The Recon Scout landed on the floor of the garage. It immediately began sending video back to the controller, which was in the hand of a detective positioned nearby.
“We used the robot to scan the room and identify the potential hiding spaces for the suspect,” Davis said. “There was a bed and other furniture in the room, along with a makeshift closet in the corner. We could see a shoe sticking out from under the bed, so the detective drove the robot directly to the bed so we could see under it. The suspect was not there. We then drove the robot around the room, looking in all the places where the suspect could potentially hide, and found nothing.
“At this point we were fairly certain that the suspect had fled the scene, but we still needed to clear the room. We positioned the robot so we could watch the closet area, then sent in the team as we gave them updates on what the robot was seeing. At no point did we let our guard down, but we did feel much more confident about the situation before putting the officers in harm’s way. That is the greatest value of the Recon Scout—it gives you greater certainty in handling a situation. It lets you know what you’re up against.”
The Huntington Park tactical team truck now carries the Recon Scout kit on all call-outs. It is used in a variety of high-risk situations. One such situation was a recent call-out regarding a parolee who was wanted for parole violations and an attempted car-jacking. Sergeant Davis received information that he was staying at a local motel.
“We had received information that the suspect had returned to the motel early in the morning, and no one had seen him leave,” Davis said. “Our team attempted to contact him through the front door but received no response. We assembled an entry team but were reluctant to send them through the door without having more information.
“Using the cover of the front wall, we used our Halligan tools to break the front window and knock down the curtains that were obscuring our view. We could now see into the room, but we could not see under or behind the bed, or into the bathroom. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to use the reconnaissance capabilities of the robot, so we pulled the pin and threw it through the window.”
Over the next five minutes, Detective Castelli directed the robot around the room and under the bed. Using the Recon Scout, they could see into all the spots in which the suspect could be hiding, the only exception being the inside of the bathtub. Davis then positioned the robot so it could watch the bathtub area as his team made entry through the front door.
“If the suspect was in the bathtub as the entry team came in, the robot would have seen him and we would have warned the entry team before he could even get out,” Davis said. “Because of the robot, we were 98% sure that he was not in the room, and that greater level of certainty makes for a safer operation and less damage to property.”
Compared to most police robots, the Recon Scout IR and Recon Scout are relatively inexpensive. The Recon Scout IR Two-Robot Kit is priced at $16,000. The Single-Robot Alternate Frequency Recon Scout IR Kit runs for $9,000. The Command Monitoring Station goes for $5,000. This investment buys a lot of capabilities. Not only can these robots save lives, but they can also quickly pay for themselves through reduced property and liability claims. Eugene Nielsen provides investigative and tactical consulting services and is a former officer.