Microsoft Tests Robot Guards for Campus Safety

With proprietary secrets and employees to protect, Microsoft tests special robot guards to keep its Silicon Valley campus safe. The autonomous mobile security system involving drones is known as K5.

While it sounds high-tech and interesting, these drones are not reminiscent of RoboCop. They are five feet tall and weigh 300 pounds. Equipment includes cameras, sensors, alarms, and rudimentary artificial intelligence, but no weapons. Their primary function is to patrol large areas like parking lots and alert human security guards to any danger or intrusion.

The system was built and designed by Knightscope, a company located in Mountain View, California. Knightscope markets the robots as data machines that demand to be noticed and yet offer a non-intimidating presence. The company kept the robots in development for several years as engineers perfected a discerning camera.

The resulting high-definition cameras read license plates and distinguish between a harmless employee gathering and something sinister, like an attempted break-in. Other specific equipment includes microphones, weather sensors, loud alarms, and Wi-Fi connectivity to alert human security enforcement. In addition to scanning for intruders, the robots can detect explosives, possible natural disasters, and other emergencies.

The K5 may evolve to a point where it can spot details often missed by humans. At this point, they do not have the ability to interact with people, although they can scan faces. If Microsoft chose to deploy the robot guards, they could continue to maintain a staff of human security guards to provide enforcement, respond to alarms and exercise human judgment in situations that require it to keep the campus safe.

During the test Microsoft had five drones on campus. Once aware of a possible disturbance, the K5 could either sound its alarm or contact a human. If people attempt to mess with the robot, it will first sound a warning and then work up to a piercing alarm if the behavior continues.

Each K5 contains a battery that runs for 24 hours. When the power supply gets low, the robot will seek out a charging station and plug itself in. Robots require 15 to 20 minutes to fully power-up.

Purchasing the robots could be a cost-savings venture for Microsoft that would allow them to hire fewer security guards. Competitively priced, Knightscope indicates that any company can deploy several robots and make crime prevention much easier.

This is not the first time robots have been used for security. In South Korea, similar drones were used as prison guards. They also patrolled the Demilitarized Zone in 2010. After acquiring Boston Dynamics, Google started working on its own drones for military use. The goal is to possibly create a military force of only robots.

Robots may continue to take over low-skilled, low-paid jobs unless the work requires human insight and adaptation. For half a century the focus of automation has been on manufacturing but it is now expanding into other sectors, including and especially security.

Not everyone is excited about these technological developments. Economists often decry the effects on job growth as humans are replaced by robots. The more imaginative fear is that artificial intelligence could develop self-awareness and become a threat to humans, a view embraced even by Elon Musk of Tesla Motors.

Stacy Stephens, Knightscope co-founder and vice president of sales and marketing, emphasizes that the robots are not intended to replace security guards but act alongside them. However, there is likely to be further testing by Microsoft as well as scrutiny of their effectiveness on employment.

By Jocelyn Mackie

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Photos Courtesy of Knightscope, Inc.

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