Philadelphia Lowe's stores are equipped with security robots, nicknamed 'snitchBOTs'

Philadelphia Lowe's stores are equipped with security robots, nicknamed 'snitchBOTs'
Img credit: Knightscope

Over the past month, customers at Lowe's stores throughout Philadelphia have been greeted by an unusual sight in parking lots—a 5-foot-tall, egg-shaped security robot emitting a cosmic whirring noise as it glides across the pavement. The survival of these robots in the city, given Philadelphia's notorious history with robots (notably hitchBOT), has surprised many, with some social media users predicting they would last only a few days. These robots have even earned the nickname "snitchBOT."

Produced by Silicon Valley-based security tech company Knightscope, the K5 autonomous outdoor security robots are part of a pilot project aimed at enhancing security and safety at Lowe's locations, according to Larry Costello, Lowe's Senior Manager of Corporate Communications.

In February, four Lowe's stores started trialing the robots. Additional pilots are taking place in Washington state, North Carolina, California, and D.C. Costello mentioned that the locations were chosen based on various criteria and scenarios, but did not elaborate further.

The K5 robot is equipped with 16 microphones, a variety of sensors such as lidar and sonar, and four wide-angle cameras that capture 360-degree high-definition footage. These features enable the robot to catch strange things and report them in real-time to Lowe's central monitoring team.

According to Stacy Stephens, Executive Vice President and Chief Client Officer at Knightscope, the K5 is designed to complement human security guards by providing enhanced situational awareness and evidence for criminal prosecutions. During a recent visit to Lowe's stores in South Philly and Port Richmond, K5 robots were stationed outside with security guards nearby, while customers seemed unfazed by their presence.

The K5s come with thermal anomaly detection and "people detection" sensors, which can identify individuals in unauthorized areas or at inappropriate times. Stephens emphasizes that although the K5 can detect a person, it does not possess facial recognition capabilities.

Stephens explained that while the robots can detect a person, they cannot identify individuals. The robots can recognize license plates and mobile devices if Lowe's has previously recorded that information in a database. "We're targeting known threats, such as individuals who've been issued criminal trespass warnings, fired employees, or domestic abusers," Stephens added.

The K5's cosmic whirring noise serves as a "patrol sound" to alert visually impaired individuals, and the robot features two-way communication that enables users to send customized messages through it. Additionally, people can request security assistance by pressing a button on the robot's back.

The 400-pound robot, which has been compared to various fictional characters like a Dalek from "Doctor Who" or a securitron from "Fallout," does not possess any weapons. Stephens clarified that the robots' purpose is observation and reporting, not offensive capabilities. However, he acknowledged that their mere presence could cause discomfort for some individuals.

Derek Leben, an Associate Professor of Business Ethics at Carnegie Mellon University who researches emerging technologies and artificial intelligence, noted that having a large, mobile object can create unease and uncertainty about its capabilities. While this can effectively deter potential threats, it may also undermine trust and evoke a sense of dystopia.

Although Lowe's might be legally allowed to film individuals in its parking lots, Leben suggested that this practice might push the boundaries of social norms. He explained that people tend to feel as though they are in a public space once they leave the store, and the presence of a device capable of following them can be unsettling.

Knightscope's website states that its robots are used in various settings, such as airports, hotels, police departments, casinos, and schools. Knightscope retains ownership of the robots, and clients pay approximately $6 to $9 per hour for an annual contract, according to Stephens, who declined to disclose the manufacturing cost of each K5 unit.

Since their introduction in 2015, K5 robots have made the news for various reasons. Incidents include a toddler being struck by a robot at a Palo Alto mall (Knightscope claimed the child ran backward into it), a robot falling into a fountain at a D.C. office building, and a San Francisco SPCA using a K5 robot to patrol for vandalism and burglaries, but facing accusations of employing it to discourage homeless individuals from the area.

K5 robots have also been subject to attacks. In 2017, a reportedly intoxicated man was accused of knocking over a robot in Knightscope's parking lot. Stephens mentioned that he was aware of Philadelphia's infamous history with robots, referring to the 2015 incident where hitchBOT, a hitchhiking Canadian robot relying on strangers to travel across the U.S., was decapitated upon arrival in the city. The perpetrator remains unidentified, but the event is still notorious in Philadelphia.

Stephens emphasized that they have pursued legal action against individuals who have tampered with their robots in ways similar to hitchBOT's fate.

As of now, there have been no major attacks on K5 robots in Philadelphia. However, users on the city's subreddit mentioned witnessing one robot being struck by a car twice (attributed entirely to the robot's fault) and another being hit with a reflective plastic sleeve that children had removed from a bollard near the store.

The effectiveness of the K5 robot is yet to be determined. Stephens referred to data on Knightscope's website, which suggests a decrease in 911 calls in cities where the robot is in use. However, a 2021 NBC News report on the K5 indicated that concrete results were elusive. Lowe's spokesperson Costello stated that the company is currently in a "test-and-learn phase" and has no definitive findings to share at this time.

Src: The Philadelphia Inquirer.Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.