Dallas PD’s Use of a Bomb-Toting Robot to Kill Shooter Is a Sign of Things To Come

This will set a new precedent in police tactics in future standoffs.

byTyler Rogoway|
U.S. Homeland photo


After hours of trying to negotiate with Dallas shooter Micah Xavier Johnson, the Dallas Police Department apparently used an unorthodox method to end the standoff. They sent one of their Explosive Ordinance Disposal robots in with an explosive device and detonated it near Johnson, killing him. It is thought to be the first time police have used a robot to kill a human.

Earlier in the night, Dallas Police Chief David Brown mentioned during a press conference that he had to get back to the command post to review “options” for ending the standoff. This hinted that there was likely no apparent conventional manner to do so.

We still don’t have details as to why exactly a robot-borne IED was used, although the dynamics of the standoff could have left Johnson and his officers in a situation where sharp shooters were useless and exposing even swat officers in order to get a clear line of fire may have been deemed far too risky considering the man was already a cop killer and armed with a long gun. Using a large tactical vehicle like a Bearcat to provide cover may have not been an option due to the low ceilings heights found in urban parking garages and the tight maneuvering area inside.

Expensive robots have long been used by SWAT teams’ EOD divisions. Another high-profile incident saw Dallas PD's robot detonating explosives in an armored van a year ago. Yet proliferation of EOD robots exploded following America’s withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. Throngs of EOD robots that the Pentagon bought to support the fight against improvised explosive devices on the battlefields of the Middle East were distributed to domestic police departments under the Pentagon’s controversial 1033 program.

A US Navy EOD robot in action., USN

While these robots are usually used to inspect, manipulate, disarm and detonate potential explosive devices, they can also be used for basic reconnaissance, delivering items during hostage negotiations, and other more or less benign functions. But just like aerial remote controlled drones, these small tracked robots are nearly ideal weapons delivery systems.

The threat from small aerial drones is something the Pentagon and Homeland Security are slowly coming to terms with. But adapting small unmanned systems for offensive purposes has been a more shadowy affair.

Some small, military-grade, man-portable drones like Switchblade can be used for surveillance and as a kamikaze attacker, putting a small explosive charge to use to kill enemy combatants or disable vehicles. But simply wheeling an explosive device within proximity of a crazed gunman is an even more logical and attainable capability. In fact, some tracked robot concepts are built around the idea of taking out the enemy remotely without damaging the robot. Military and police units have been slow to adopt these systems, but that could now change.

The concept of using unmanned systems to end standoffs and hostage situations has been looming for some time. As they evolve and become more creature like—something the Pentagon is actively working on—their use in such situations will likely become not just commonplace but a primary solution not a secondary one.

Prox Dynamics' PD-100 Black Hornet that the Army is testing now., US Army

I have talked about this in detail over the years. As unmanned systems become insect-sized, their potential to take out enemies even while concealed in hard-to-reach places will become undeniable.

“By arming these micro UAVs with explosives you create a suicide robot that would be feared psychologically by the enemy on truly unprecedented levels, as they would literally be able to sneak in a cracked window at night and detonate themselves above the enemy as they sleep… Imagine a scout sniper team being able to recon their area while still remaining hidden almost as if they were doing it on foot. A micro-UAV system would give them the ability to go inside open buildings and peer around corners. All the swarm’s intel could be recorded in real time as well. Further, micro-UAV swarms could be used as a weapon instead of a tell-tale sniper shot which often gives away a stealthy scout sniper team’s hiding position. Instead they could spot their target and fly a little drone too it, detonating next to the target by surprise when it comes within lethal range. No loud muzzle report or bright muzzle flash needed. In many ways science fiction has already portrayed such drones as the ultimate in persistent search and destroy weaponry, too hard to kill and relentless in their pursuit.”

“On the tiny side of things, mechanized dragonflies and mosquitoes will become the ultimate tools of clandestine warfare. Able to penetrate almost any structure, these tiny drones could be used to literally look and listen in on the enemy’s most sensitive conversations without being detected or requiring risky planting before such a meeting took place. Further, these types of mechanical micro-insects will be able to track an enemy high value target by simply attaching to their vehicle or clothes. Even machinery and computer networks could eventually be infiltrated with tiny mechanical spiders, still far larger than the aforementioned nanobots, that could wreak havoc on hardware from inside the computers themselves.

Finally and the most sinister of all, mosquito, wasp, or even ant like drones could use their organic pseudo-pedigree in deadly ways, injecting the enemy with poison even while they are fast asleep. What at first would seem like a harmless series of bug bites would soon turn out to be a death sentence. With this insect like drone technology there will no longer be a need to blow up a building with a Hellfire missile in order to kill a single high value target inside. Instead war-fighters could just drop a swarm of mechanical mosquitoes over the building in question and proceed to deal death with microscopic accuracy and finesse.

These tiny drones represent the ultimate in low collateral damage stealth weaponry. Yet the technology also represents a massive threat to our forces as well. How do you adequately protect the common soldier, yet alone people like the President or other highly important figureheads when just a drone-mosquito bite could mean certain death? Once this technology gestates, what once were traditionally safe havens, such as inside known structures or surrounded by security personnel, will no longer be considered so. The only true defense against such an insidious capability would be to live within totally sealed structures at all times. What I am trying to say here is that this type of micro-drone, insect-like technology, once developed, has the ability to change the way we live totally, and if it were to fall into the wrong hands it could be incredibly dangerous.”

Just like the topic of autonomous and swarming unmanned air vehicles, such capabilities may be a hot debate issue among legal scholars and technologists now, but the reality is that they represent too sweet of a tactical apple to be left hanging on the tree.

US Marshalls in action during the night of the Dallas shootings., AP

After this morning’s robotic end to the standoff in Dallas’s El Centro parking garage, police departments' playbooks around the country and the world will likely change, and the weapons industry will be right there with “offensive drones” waiting to streamline this new concept. And why use a bomb when you can use a drone-mounted gun, or one day simply inject the enemy with poison as if it were a mosquito bite?

In other words, the “police improvised explosive robot” will likely be short lived, with departments turning toward buying lethal robots for just this type of situation. And from there the technology will quickly evolve, for better or for worse.

Contact the author Tyler@thedrive.com

A personal note from the author: I saw some incredibly heroic police work last night. The United States is going through a tough period of police-community relations, but last night showed just how many brave and selfless policemen and women are serving in this country, and the complexities of the challenges they face daily. Bravo to the Dallas PD, and my deepest condolences to the families and friends of those officers that never made it home.