Robot stands up for police


Meet Las Vegas SWAT officer Johnny V.

He weighs 585 pounds and is particularly good at busting through doors and negotiating with suspects in deadly hostage situations.

He has nerves of steel.

And plastic.

And copper.

Johnny V is a real-life robocop. He's officially known as a Northrop Grumman Andros Mark V-A1, but the other members of the Metropolitan Police Department SWAT unit call him Johnny V, with the "V" being the Roman numeral five.

The $225,000 robot, purchased with a federal grant, has been with the unit since January 2006.

He has proved himself useful on calls in Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County and has been on a few missions in North Las Vegas and Henderson as well.

You might remember him from a highly publicized standoff in Henderson in early June, when 21-year-old Andres Avitia took his estranged wife hostage in the upstairs bedroom of a house near Boulder Highway and College Drive.

Avitia shot at police and killed 21-year-old Naira Villarreal-Gonzalez before turning the gun on himself and ending his life, authorities said.

But police at the time didn't know that Avitia had killed himself, and they tried to contact him for more than an hour.

They finally sent in the robot, which can climb stairs.

Johnny V discovered Avitia and Villarreal-Gonzalez dead in the upstairs bedroom, police said. Officers in a SWAT vehicle outside the home saw everything on a monitor, thanks to Johnny's camera eye and his wireless transmission capabilities.

The robot has gone on more than 20 missions and has confronted suspects, said SWAT Lt. Larry Burns.

Officers operating the robot can use the robot's communication system to allow trained negotiators to speak with suspects and persuade them to surrender, keeping officers out of harm's way, he said.

"It doesn't put us gun-to-gun with a suspect," Burns said.

Officer Patrick Ledbetter, who is the main operator of Johnny V, said no suspects have ever shot at the robot.

He said some suspects are more puzzled by the robot than threatened by it.

In one instance, Johnny V went into a home where there was a man with mental health problems. The suspect was so amazed by the shiny robot that he followed every direction the robot gave, ultimately surrendering to police, Ledbetter said.

"He was totally engrossed with it," Ledbetter said.

During a demonstration of Johnny V several weeks ago, Ledbetter manipulated a joystick to make the robot speed through a hangar at between 5 and 10 mph.

The robot nimbly climbed up stairs and extended its main arm, which can burst through windows, grab objects and open doors.

Johnny V isn't the only robot working for emergency personnel in the valley.

The Las Vegas Fire Department's bomb squad has used a robot for at least five years to examine suspicious items while officers monitor the situation from a safe distance, said Tim Szymanski, spokesman for the fire department.

"Before we had the robot, we would have had to put a person out there. We don't put that human life on the line now," he said.

The robots used by the two departments could be considered brothers. They are essentially the same model, but Las Vegas police have modified theirs with tactical weapons such as a low-lethality shotgun and a gun that can blow out locks on doors.

Burns said police officials are also trying to persuade the manufacturer to install a Taser on future models.

Johnny V isn't without his faults, however.

"He's too heavy and too big," Burns said.

The robot's size makes it hard to maneuver around furniture or through small hallways in houses.

But Burns equated the robot to cell phones, which were once the size of bricks and are now slim and have more functions.

Burns expects tactical robots will evolve in the same way.

He envisioned a time when a robot like Johnny V would be outfitted with a small, Roomba-like robot that could do additional intelligence gathering in areas too small for the larger robot to get to.

"Technology is an amazing thing," Burns said.

 

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