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Real-life Robocop? Machines rise to the challenge

Tuesday, 24 Dec 2013 | 3:46 AM ET

"Dead or alive, you're coming with me," reads the famous quote in Robocop. While the 1987 movie – and the forthcoming remake -- paints a dystopian picture of policing the future, today's robot makers are producing a range of less threatening creations.

Last weekend, 16 teams from five different countries descended on the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida for the Darpa Robotics Challenge (DRC). The competition, to find the next humanoid robot capable of working in battle zones and disaster areas, was won by Japanese firm Schaft - recently acquired by Google – which topped the leaderboard with its S-One model which stands around 1.5 meters tall and weighs 95 kilograms.

Schaft S-One at Darpa Robotics Challenge
Darpa | Raymond Sheh
Schaft S-One at Darpa Robotics Challenge

Darpa (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is an agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development and funding of new technologies for use by the military. The top eight teams, who competed over eight different tasks, will now seek Darpa investment next year before competing again for the chance to win a $2 million prize.

The event may have showcased what tomorrow's products could achieve but away from the limelight, there's a growing network of robotics manufacturers working hard to help integrate machines into defense and law enforcement.

(Read More: Robots, self-driving cars—what's Google doing?)

U.S.-based iRobot, best known for selling 10 million vacuum cleaning robots worldwide including its popular Roomba model, also manufactures a family of four law enforcement machines. They are currently in use by government agencies across the world, with the majority being used by the U.S.'s partners at NATO. The company's robot range -- the FirstLook 100, the 310 SubV, the 510 Packbot and the heavy duty 710 Warrior – aren't humanoid but have been used in Afghanistan, at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant and were deployed by the police during the Boston bombings. They will also be used in Brazil for the upcoming Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup.

Tom Phelps, director of Robotics Products North America at iRobot told CNBC in a telephone interview that the next step for the firm was developing its fleet so they can work better as a team – including increasing the radio range so that a police team can get a better remote view of a building or outside space.

"The trend will be to make sure that the family will work together more seamlessly," he said.

Rather than looking to replace police officers on the beat – as portrayed in Robocop -- iRobot is looking at extending the capabilities of law enforcement agencies, Phelps added. He predicts that robots will be a "standard piece of gear" in the coming years for law enforcers.

(Read More: Google puts money on robots, using the man behind Android)

Mark Bunger, a research director at Lux Research, told CNBC that robots can be extremely cost-efficient for police forces.

"Robots that cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars are cost-effective replacements for $3 million police helicopters and their pilots; a $1,000 drone can help two officers scan an area (say for a missing person) that would take ten on foot," he said.

"We're in the 'dot com boom' era of robotics right now," Bunger said. Small robotic startups that he says are making waves include Panoscan, Recon Robotics, Knightscope, and Simulator Systems.

(Read More: Minority report: Predicting where to put your policeman)

Knightscope boldly states on its website that its mission is to cut crime by 50 percent with autonomous robots and predictive analytics. These machines use video cameras, microphones and thermal imaging and look to effectively "crowdsource security", it says.

Knightscope

A future of autonomous, mobile machines patrolling the streets is still "a few decades off", according to Bunger. Taking the plight of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or "drones" as an example, Bunger sees police forces 15 years behind the military with ground-based military just starting to adopt robots.

"After components of robot technology are proven there, it is relatively straightforward to engineer out costs and improve performance for police-grade security," he said.

By CNBC.com's Matt Clinch. Follow him on Twitter @mattclinch81

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