Visitors to Dubai’s busy shopping arcades may be surprised to find themselves under the protection of a humanoid police robot. Though it has no mouth, the expressionless bot communicates in Arabic and English, and helps tourists navigate the city, as well as connecting them directly with police services via a touchscreen.
Dubai’s answer to RoboCop dresses and salutes like a police officer but is actually from an existing family of robots known as REEM, built and programmed by the Barcelona-based company PAL Robotics.
“Citizens can use the robot to contact the Dubai police call centres, speaking through the integrated microphones, and accessing other police-related services such as paying traffic fines. The robot can also report any incidents to a command control centre,” a source at PAL tells us.
REEM robots had already spent a number of years working at public events, so it was just a case of customising its software to include police functions, PAL says. The police version has face recognition software, meaning it could potentially catch a criminal by making comparisons with the police database. PAL hopes that the robots will become more accepted as people get used to seeing them around, and we might see them filling roles in healthcare and hospitality in the not-so-distant future.
PAL would not confirm whether it had any further robots on order for Dubai police, or if it would be upgrading the current model. However, Saif Salem Juma Ali Alkaabi at the Dubai police told us that “the numbers of robots will increase for sure”. Its Smart Services department previously set a target of replacing a quarter of its on-patrol officers with robots by 2030. The Dubai government has also announced plans for a new model that makes the current officer look like little more than a glorified tourist information point. RoboCop 2.0 will, apparently, be able to run at 80km/h (50mph), controlled by an onboard human.
Another robot, the Russian FEDOR is destined for the stars (okay, near-Earth orbit). The Russian space agency Roscosmos plans for the robot to pilot the unmanned Federatsiya spacecraft on its first mission in 2021. The bot’s fine motor skills give it the dexterity to screw in light bulbs and drive cars, but have also led to speculation about other potential roles. That’s because in April last year, FEDOR was filmed being trained to shoot two guns at once, firing double-handed like a gunslinger from the Wild West, and both on target.
While Russian officials were quick to point out that they are not “creating a Terminator”, some people have jumped to other conclusions. Meanwhile, scientists at Russia’s Advanced Research Fund, which built FEDOR in partnership with Android Technics, are also developing robots to assist special forces in the field. They are working on a prototype for a robot that will “deliver ammunition to the battlefield, support the sniper, and, if necessary, help in evacuation of the wounded,” the organisation’s deputy head of robotics, Alexei Kononov, told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti last October.
This is an extract from issue 322 of BBC Focus magazine. Subscribe and get the full article delivered to your door, or download the BBC Focus app to read it on your smartphone or tablet. Find out more