Police robots keep malfunctioning, with mishaps ranging from running over a toddler’s foot to ignoring people in distress

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Gene Kim
  • Security robots are being gradually adopted by some police departments and private companies, but there have been some recent hiccups.
  • The robots are autonomous and are designed to patrol property and respond to perceived threats.
  • Some robots, however, have been thwarted by obstacles like mall fountains, narrow sidewalks, and errant toddlers.
  • Knightscope, one of the most popular companies making security robots, has maintained that the mishaps are outliers.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Police robots are now a reality in some corners of the world – but we’re still a far cry from high-octane RoboCops patrolling the streets.

As some police departments and private companies have begun to experiment with security robots built for surveillance, the robots have repeatedly hit obstacles (or, in some cases, fallen into them).

The most prominent security robot maker is Knightscope, which sells a fleet of egg-shaped robots that are already patrolling the streets of Silicon Valley.

Knightscope has more than 50 robots deployed across the US, which it rents out for $7 an hour. The robots cost about $60,000-$70,000 per year to lease, which is comparable to a police officer’s annual salary. Knightscope has raised over $46 million in funding, according to Crunchbase.

Knightscope’s robots use artificial intelligence, cameras, GPS, lasers, and thermal sensors to monitor their surroundings and report disturbances. The company drew backlash in 2017, when a San Francisco animal rights group deployed Knightscope robots to block homeless people from sleeping outside its headquarters.

Controversy aside, there have been multiple reports of Knightscope robots being incapacitated by obstacles like a mall fountain, malfunctioning by running over a toddler, and ignoring a woman’s calls for help.

Knightscope did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story. In the past, the company has maintained that malfunctions like those are outliers, or stemmed from unique circumstances surrounding how private companies were piloting the use of security robots.

Here’s a rundown of high-profile security-robot snafus from recent years.


In October 2019, a police robot reportedly ignored a woman who was trying to report an emergency, instead telling her to ‘step out of the way.’

The robot was being used by the police department of Huntington, California, and was labeled with “POLICE” on its body.

But when a woman attempted to report a fight that broke out in a public park by pressing the emergency alert button on the front of the robot, it didn’t do anything other than tell her to “step out of the way,” according to NBC News.


After making several attempts to get the robot to summon police officers to no avail, the Huntington woman dialed 911 on her phone, according to the report.

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KTLA/YouTube

As the fight in the park wore on, the robot reportedly continued to roll down the sidewalk, playing a whimsical tune from its speakers and intermittently saying, “please keep the park clean.”

Huntington’s police chief told NBC News that the robot was still being tested by the department at the time, and that its emergency button was calibrated to call Knightscope’s headquarters rather than 911.


A security robot rolled into a fountain in a Washington, DC office building in 2017, drowning itself.

The robot, nicknamed “Steve,” rolled down some steps into a ground-level fountain, where it tipped over. It’s not clear whether it survived the water damage, according to CNBC.


People then created a memorial shrine to Steve the security robot, which was decommissioned after the fountain incident.

In an “official statement” posted to Twitter, Knightscope said the robot learned that “humans can take a dip in the water in this heat, but robots cannot.”


In 2016, a security robot in a Palo Alto mall knocked down and ran over a toddler, hurting his foot.

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Knightscope

The 300-pound robot at the Stanford Shopping Center bowled over a 16-month-old boy that was in its way, then ran over his right foot, according to ABC 7 News.

Knightscope issued a statement calling the incident a “freakish accident” that had never occurred before. The company apologized to the child’s family, but said that the robot was trying to avoid the toddler, who “ran backwards directly into the front quarter of the machine.”


A San Francisco security robot was “fired” for encroaching on public sidewalks without the city’s approval and making human enemies.

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Knightscope

The robot, which was being used by the San Francisco SPCA to patrol its parking lot and grounds, garnered a huge wave of public backlash for irritating pedestrians and blocking homeless people from sitting outside the property.

It also earned a rebuke from the city, which warned the SPCA that the robot was encroaching on public sidewalks without a proper permit, according to Mashable. The SPCA ultimately nixed the robot.


A security robot in Mountain View lost a fight with a drunk man, who knocked it over before being arrested by human cops.

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Knightscope

The man was accused of drunkenly tipping the security robot over outside Knightscope’s campus, according to CNET. A Knightscope spokesperson said at the time that the man appeared intoxicated, and he was later charged with public drunkenness.

While the robot lost the fight, it ultimately survived with just a few scratches.