Robocop Redux

San Francisco animal shelter deploys robot to keep away the homeless

News Technology Urbanism West
San Francisco animal shelter deploys robot to keep away the homeless. Photo of the SPCA's dog-covered K5 security robot. (Courtesy Knightscope)

The recent deployment of a mobile security robot to the sidewalk outside of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ (SPCA) San Francisco chapter has raised questions over what role robots will play in the urban fabric in coming years. The SPCA’s K5 Knightscope security robot, a 5-foot tall, 400-pound ovoid on wheels that can go up to 3 miles per hour, was rented to dissuade local homeless residents from setting up encampments in front of the shelter’s building. Renting the robot only cost $7 an hour, compared to the $14 dollar minimum wage in San Francisco.

The Mission District shelter first unveiled the autonomous rolling guard in early November, using it to patrol their parking lots and public sidewalks. Jennifer Scarlett, the S.F. SPCA’s president, told the San Francisco Business Times that the robot’s job was to prevent the homeless from congregating in the area.

“We weren’t able to use the sidewalks at all when there’s needles and tents and bikes, so from a walking standpoint I find the robot much easier to navigate than an encampment,” said Scarlett.

Renting an autonomously patrolling robot, especially one that takes up three feet of space on the sidewalk and is designed to shoo people away, has riled up public space advocates and drawn charges that the SPCA is engaging in hostile design. The issue of robots clogging public right-of-ways had grown so contentious in San Francisco that lawmakers recently passed an ordinance limiting the number of robots allowed to roll around the city’s public areas.

The clash between autonomous robots and the urban environment reached a fevered pitch in 2017. The same K5-model of security robot caught criticism for plowing over a toddler in Palo Alto, drowning itself in a Washington D.C. fountain, and getting beat up by a drunk man in Mountain View. Even the SPCA’s robot was reportedly pushed over by angry homeless encampment residents at least once.

After being warned on December 1st by the city’s Department of Public Works that the SPCA would be fined $1,000 for every day that the K5 operated on a public sidewalk, the shelter has agreed to pull the guard and pass negotiations with the city up to the robot’s manufacturer, Knightscope.

While the SPCA had plastered their robot with pictures of dogs in attempt to soften the image of a machine designed to scare people away, the K5 reportedly also “terrified” dogs coming in and out of the shelter.

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