“In An Apparent First, Police Used A Robot To Kill.” So proclaimed a Friday headline on NPR’s website, referring to the method Dallas police used to end the standoff with Micah Xavier Johnson, the Army veteran who shot 12 police officers and killed five of them on Thursday night. Johnson had holed himself up in a garage after his attack and told police negotiators that he would kill more officers in the final standoff. As Dallas Police Chief David Brown said at a news conference on Friday morning, “[w]e saw no other option but to use our bomb robot and place a device on its extension for it to detonate where the subject was. Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger.”
The media’s coverage of this incident generally has glossed over the nature of the “robot” that delivered the lethal bomb. The robot was not an autonomous weapon system that operated free of human control, which is what most people picture when they hear the term “killer robot.” Rather, it was a remote-controlled bomb disposal robot (that was sent, ironically, to deliver and detonate a bomb rather than to remove or defuse one). Such a robot operates in more or less the same manner as the unmanned aerial vehicles or “drones” that have seen increasing military and civilian use in recent years. As with drones, there is a human somewhere who controls every significant aspect of the robot’s movements.
Legally, I don’t think the use of such a remote-controlled device to deliver lethal force presents any special challenges. Because a human is continuously in control of the robot–albeit from a remote location–the lines of legal liability are no different than if the robot’s human operator had walked over and placed the bomb himself. I don’t think that entering the command that detonates a robot-delivered bomb is any different from a legal standpoint than a sniper pulling the trigger on his rifle. The accountability problems that arise with autonomous weapons simply are not present when lethal force is delivered by a remote-controlled device.