San Francisco Non-Profit Deploys Robot Guards to Address Homeless Problem, But Not Everyone Is Happy

December 13, 2017 Updated: December 13, 2017

A San Francisco non-profit is dealing with the fallout from neighbors and legislators over the deployment of a security robot aimed at dealing with a wave of crimes linked to a nearby homeless encampment.

The San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was plagued by needles on the sidewalk, car break-ins, and other crimes emanating from a homeless encampment near its offices, Fox News reported, so the non-profit reached out to Knightscope, the maker of a line of autonomous robot security guards.

“We weren’t able to use the sidewalks at all when there’s needles and tents and bikes, so from a walking standpoint I find the robot much easier to navigate than an encampment,” Jennifer Scarlett, the SPCA’s president, said in an interview with the San Francisco Business Times.

Scarlett said that after the robot started patrolling the sidewalks, there were fewer car break-ins and the homeless encampments disappeared. She added that it wasn’t possible to prove that the robots are responsible for the outcome, but that there is a correlation.

The company rented the robots instead of hiring people to do the job because the cost of a live security guard is prohibitive given San Francisco’s $14-per-hour minimum wage. In comparison, the robots cost $6 per hour to rent.

The homeless people camping out on sidewalks showed their displeasure with the autonomous sentries. On at least one occasion, people in the encampments put barbeque sauce on the robot’s censors, knocked it over and draped a tarp over it.

But the homeless weren’t the only ones upset. Local resident Fran Taylor came across the machine while walking her dog, which started barking at the robot as it got closer. Taylor yelled at the machine to stop and it came to a halt about 10 feet away.

Taylor was struck by the coincidence since she works with a pedestrian group asking local officials to ban sidewalk delivery robots. She quickly sent an email to SPCA and copied several local legislators.

Now, despite the rosy outcome and cleaning up of the streets, the City of San Francisco is rebuking SPCA for using the robocops and threatening to issue a $1,000 fine for each day the robots are caught patrolling on sidewalks.

“I can understand being scared about a new technology on the street, and we should be asking questions about it, but we should probably be a little bit angry that a nonprofit has to spend so much on security at the same time,” Scarlett told Business Times.

“In five years we will look back on this and think, ‘We used to take selfies with these because they were so new,’” Scarlett added.

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