Public Lashes Out as Robots Target the Homeless

Even though crime is down, many feel their use is insensitive and are encouraging citizens to vandalize the robots.

As anyone who’s ever been there can attest, San Francisco is an interesting place. And perhaps no dynamic best represents the diversity of the city like contrasting the social dynamics of the technology hub San Francisco has become, with the estimated 7,000 homeless residents that crowd its streets. 

The actions of this growing homeless population led the San Francisco chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to deploy robots outside of its offices and shelter. 

Supplied by nearby Knightscope, the K9 robots were originally designed to help identify security threats following the 2013 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. 

The SCPA deployed the robots to drive homeless people away from their building after employees complained of being harassed going to and from work, vehicles being broken into, tents and bikes lining walkways, and needles littering the sidewalk. The building was also broken into twice, with property and donations stolen.

Since deploying the 400-pound, 4.5’ tall robots, both the SCPA and SFPD have seen the amount of crime and vandalism in the area decrease. The units use a combination of four cameras, LIDAR and thermal-imaging to navigate. 

Laser scanning and odor detectors can detect changes to the environment, and alert authorities of any suspect behavior. 

Moving at about 3 mph, the units can either patrol along a prescribed route or roam randomly. They’re also extremely cost-effective, as the robots, which don’t need a break or health insurance, can be rented for $7 an hour.  

But, this is San Francisco, so even though crime is down and employees feel safer, the public has been extremely critical of the SPCA. Numerous comments on social media and other outlets decry the SPCA’s actions as being insensitive and many have encouraged citizens to vandalize or try to destroy the K9. 

Additionally, city officials are threatening to fine the SPCA $1,000/day if they continue to use the robot without a permit. Knightscope is trying to work with San Francisco to preserve the robot’s use.