Knightscope K5: The Robotic Policeman On Wheels That Embarrassed the NYPD

Knightscope K5 10 photos
Photo: Knightscope
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If you've never been to New York City, let alone spent long periods there, you might not know that the city and its law enforcement, the NYPD, have a somewhat rocky relationship at times. From the borderline Wild West on the streets in the '70s and '80s to the stop-and-frisk fiasco of the mid-to-late 2000s, NYC has a police force that isn't always the best in the public relations department. The Knightscope K5 police robot is the latest chapter in what's become a rather unpleasant saga.
After a remarkably short run attempting to make NYC's busiest subway station safer, tourists and locals alike find the Big Apple's plastic robot cop embarrassingly parked behind the front glass of an abandoned retail outlet inside the 42nd Street-Times Square subway station and has been there for at least the last two months. Instead of being the robotic extension of the NYPD in its busiest, possibly most vulnerable point of mass transit, the K5 Robot has been nothing short of a PR disaster for America's largest metro police force.

But what even is the Knightscope K5? Who is it made by? And more importantly, why on Earth did NYC's ever-controversial Mayor Eric Adams personally endorse the device back in 2023? The answers paint a picture of a story that could have only been told in the Big Apple, another classic case of misguided policing, after which city leaders were left with some "splainin" to do. Our story starts with a mysterious California-based robotics company called Knightscope.

Founded in 2013 and based in the town of Mountain View, also home to offices for Microsoft, Google, and Samsung, Knightscope is a company founded with the intention of making high-traffic public areas like schools and mass transit centers safer. With co-founders William Santana Li (CEO), a former Ford executive, and Stacy Stevens (Executive VP), a former police officer in Dallas, Texas, at the helm, Knightscope was a company founded in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, one of the deadliest in American history.

Citing a lack of uniformed police presence and an even more stark lack of automated security systems in places like schools and rail stations, Knightscope spent much of the early 2010s gathering investment support from big-name tech and security firms like Microsoft, Uber, NBC Universal, and Allied Universal Group, the largest international supplier of private sector security guards in the world. With capital investments secured, Knightscope spent the rest of the decade designing a fleet of autonomous security robots capable of being adapted to a wide range of environments.

Knightscope K5
Photo: Knightscope
Security robot designs from Knightscope include the stationary K1, built to survey a single high-traffic entry/exit points for long periods; the K3 Indoor, built to traverse smaller, more intimate indoor settings; and the K7 Multi-Terrain Autonomous Data Machine. As you can probably guess, the K7 was more or less a radio-controlled 4x4 off-roader that could zip around open-air events like concerts and public demonstrations with a minimum of fuss or difficulty. With a powerful set of video cameras, sensor arrays, 3D mapping software, and real-time streaming capability to a police or security headquarters, the Knightscope fleet of robots appeared to check all the right boxes.

This includes the cost per hour, which Knightscope touted as on par with or better than the minimum wages of various US states in total cost savings. But standing a touch over five feet tall and weighing over 400 lbs (181.43 kg), the subject of NYPD intrigue, the Knightscope K5, is a positively imposing figure. With a fully weatherproofed construction housing a 360-degree eye-level video recording and streaming suite, the K5 theoretically had all it needed to be the eyes and ears of any security or police force, let alone one as massive as the NYPD.

With a brisk top speed of 3 mph, it'd be wrong to say the K5 can chase down criminals and neutralize them vis-a-vis the Robocop movies. Instead, the K5 is theoretically capable of using its array of sensors to detect an array of potential threats. Through its thermal anomaly detection software, the K5 is purported to be capable of sniffing out explosive devices and concealed firearms without the need for a dedicated K9 officer and handler. With the F5's automatic signal detection service, the robot can catalog approved, denied, or unknown wireless device MAC addresses as a cybersecurity countermeasure.

But even beyond borderline intrusive MAC address logging, the K5 is capable of logging more mundane items like license plate numbers. Whatever findings the K5 comes across, it's all streamed in real-time, just in case a human law enforcement presence is needed or if its integrated set of emergency contact buttons is activated in an emergency. The K5 made its operational debut in the mid-2010s, and Knightscope rents out its fleet at around $7 per hour. The yearly cost per Knightscope's robot-as-a-service (RaaS) program is between $60,000 and $70,000 per year, including the hourly rate for the technicians needed to keep these robots in working order, to the tune of $150 per hour.

Knightscope K5
Photo: Knightscope
With all its annual expenses accounted for, the K5 is theoretically a touch more expensive to operate, as the starting salary of the average NYPD beat cop is around $58,580. Of course, it hasn't always been smooth sailing when the K5's on patrol. Memes and online mockery abound when one K5 unit fell into a park fountain in Washington D.C in 2017., damaging its sensitive electronics in the process. "Our D.C. office building got a security robot. It drowned itself. We were promised flying cars. Instead, we got suicidal robots," one tweet by a passer-by read at the time.

In another instance from 2019, a Huntington, California, woman repeatedly tried to hail the police using a K5 robot deployed in a public park using its built-in police contact button. The robot proceeded to seemingly deliberately ignore these requests, angered her to the point of giving up and dialing 911 on her phone instead. One further incident in San Francisco saw a K5 accused of harassing homeless people standing and sitting outside of buildings well outside the pre-set virtual boundary programmed by the operator, the San Francisco SPCA. The non-profit animal shelter promptly terminated their contract with Knightscope.

None of these incidents stopped New York City's ever-polarizing Mayor Eric Adams from personally endorsing the K5 as an effective countermeasure to potential subway crimes at the 42nd Street-Times Square station between the hours of midnight and 6 AM. In a media session in April 2023, Mayor Adams formally introduced the Knightscope K5 in NYPD decals. Later that year, in September, Adams announced a two-month initial trial run of the K5 at $9 per hour per machine, or a full $6 cheaper than the $15 per hour minimum wage for the city's adult employees, which has since been raised to $16 per hour.

But contrary to its ability to operate independently of human law enforcement, the K5 always had a human chaperone during its NYC deployments. Did this defeat the point of robot security in the first place? It seems the NYPD has come to this conclusion. Because well short of a year after Mayor Adam's introduction of the K5 in its first press conference, the future of the robot in NYPD service appears very much in doubt. Jokes about Robocop and dystopian Cyberpunk-esque strategies to urban policing aside, the financial implications of New York City's latest police PR disaster are nothing to laugh about.

Knightscope K5
Photo: Twitter User S. Singer
As rates of violent subway crime in New York continue to make international headlines, the K5 is another unpleasant footnote in an Eric Adams mayorship rife with controversy. In the meantime, whether the NYPD continues its service contract with Knightscope remains to be seen. For now, the robot is little more than a morbid curiosity for tourists and locals alike. In short, it's a boil on the hind quarters of a police force 36,000 officers strong.

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