October 11, 2017LAPEER COUNTY — It resembles and sounds like any remote-controlled toy but the Lapeer County Sheriff Office's new tactical robot means business.
Last week, the department took possession of the 110 FirstLook machine made by Endeavor Robotics. Thanks to a Homeland Security grant, it came at no cost to Lapeer County.
Lt. Andy Engster said it's the first time in department history that they've owned this kind of technology.
"This is one of the most popular models being used around the world by law enforcement and is perfect for our situation," he said.
Weighing in at just five pounds, the 110 FirstLook is often referred to as a throwable robot, meaning it can be thrown through a window to assess potentially dangerous situations, like a barricaded gunman.
It features four cameras, utilizes tracks to climb up and over obstacles and is incredibly tough.
Poniatowski demonstrates how thermal imaging cameras work on the robot (shown just above the table.) photo by Maria Brown.
"It can survive a sixteen foot drop onto concrete," said Deputy Don Poniatowski who's been tasked as the robot's project manager.
Those cameras have an infared ability and the robot includes a microphone that can transmit sound between the robot and user.
"We've had to call on Oakland County several times to utilize their robot. That's where I got the idea to request one for ourselves," Engster said.
Until now, the department's Special Response Team was limited to breaking a window and throwing a phone into the window when called to a barricaded gunman or suicidal situation.
"The robot will help us determine if they are inside, where they are inside and check for weapons," Poniatowski said.
Engster said Lapeer County is the only police unit in the state's Homeland Security Region 3 to have a tactical robot, meaning they'll need to make it accessible to other agencies in the region. It sells for just under $20,000.
Besides Poniatowski, some four to five other deputies will be trained on how to use the robot.
Poniatowski was chosen as the project manager for his knowledge of robots including his involvement in his own kids' robotics clubs.
"It's a great tool," Poniatowski said.
"It will take lots of practice to operate it well and every environment that we use it in will be different."
Engster said the sheriff's department has benefitted from other programs that lets them acquire important equipment for free, like their MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle.
The MRAP, rifles and other equipment has come to them through the 1033 Program, a federal initiative that dates back to the late 1990s that transfers excessive military equipment to civilian police agencies.
The huge vehicle features bullet-proof glass and armored plates. Usually the site of an MRAP is enough to make armed subjects surrender and that's the ideal outcome, Engster said.
"We're here to save lives, not take them...that's our goal as law enforcement officers."
Maria Brown joined the Tri-City Times staff in 2003, the same year she earned a bachelor's degree in English from Calvin College. Born and raised in Imlay City, she and her family reside in the Capac area where she enjoys gardening and reading.