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The security guard of the future is an all-seeing robot, endowed with laser scanning, thermal imaging, 360-degree video and sensors for all kinds of signals.

Only the future is now. Dozens of self-propelled, wheeled robots are already on patrol in places like the Golden 1 Center arena in Sacramento, a residential development near Tampa, Fla., and at venues in Boston, Atlanta and Dallas.

They are cheaper than humans, require no health insurance, never clamor for a raise and work 24 hours a day.

A Mountain View, Calif., startup, Knightscope, contracts out four types of indoor and outdoor robotic sentinels. So far, it has put 47 in service in 10 states.

“We’re about to see a rising of this type of technology,” said Stacy Dean Stephens, a co-founder of Knightscope. “It’s very reasonable to believe that by the end of next year, we’d have a couple of hundred of these out.”

The Knightscope robots are both friendly, with calming blue lights, and imposing in size.

“They get attention,” Stephens said. “There’s a reason they’re 5 1/2 feet tall. There’s a reason they are three feet wide, weigh over 400 pounds, because you want it to be very conspicuous.”

The advent of self-propelled autonomous robots, though, has stepped on a few feet, literally and figuratively. The robots blend three of the world’s top innovations: self-driving technology, artificial intelligence and robotics, areas of frequent breakthroughs. But this is a space where society is still sorting out rules.

Knightscope’s security robots are largely aimed for use on private property, giving them greater latitude. That is not so for delivery robots that operate on sidewalks of several big U.S. cities, where they can mix uneasily with pedestrians.

Elected officials in San Francisco last month pondered whether delivery robots should be banned from city sidewalks, pushing them on to bicycle lanes and away from the elderly.

“There are a lot of issues of how to stop it from hurting people, accidentally running over their toes, pushing over children and dogs, that kind of thing,” said A. Michael Froomkin, a University of Miami Law School professor who specializes in policy issues surrounding robots.

Among practical issues, Froomkin said, is how to contact robot owners in case of mishap.

“If you have a robot with no distinguishing marks, who are you going to call? It’s a very good question and it’s already happened in real life,” Froomkin said.

He referred to Edward Hasbrouck, a consumer advocate and author who blogged in August about a “disturbing encounter” with a delivery robot on a train platform in Redwood City, Calif., that rolled near the edge of the platform, inches from a speeding train.

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“I yelled at the robot, hoping that a human operator might be monitoring it, but the only response from the robot was a repeated recorded message, ‘Let me go! I’m working! I’m going to be late!’—as if the platform was a right-of-way, and humans were expected to yield to robots,” Hasbrouck wrote.

Hasbrouck appeared before the Redwood City Council Aug. 28 to complain that there were “no visible marking on the robot” and no way to contact its human operator.

Knightscope, which was founded in 2013, has carved out a different robot niche than delivery: fighting and deterring crime. Its workforce isn’t dulled by the monotony of routine patrols and can detect anomalies that might elude a human sentinel.

Around large parking lots, its K5 robots can use their license plate-reading capability to “track dwell time of cars, say, if a car’s been there for three days,” Stephens said.

A smaller version, the K3, is a little over 4 feet tall and is intended for indoor use in places like shopping malls, warehouses and sports arenas. It has microphones and speakers to allow conversations between people near the robot and the security operations center. It can also air recorded public service messages.

A third version is a stationary robot intended to be placed at points of high traffic. It has sensors that can detect radiation and certain kinds of weapons. A fourth model is a rugged multi-terrain vehicle that could patrol solar and wind farms and power utility installations.

If a criminal impedes the Knightscope robots, they emit an escalating series of alarms. The robots are unarmed and cannot detain criminal suspects.

“Where we draw a very, very thick red line is the weaponization of the machines, even less than lethal,” said Stephens, a former Dallas police officer.


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