NYPD retires big, egg-shaped subway surveillance robot—for now

Privacy advocates have criticized the 'trash can on wheels.'
People walk past the K5 robot used by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) in the Times Square subway station in New York on November 28. 2023.
People walk past the K5 robot used by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) in the Times Square subway station in New York on November 28. 2023. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Commuters making their way through New York City’s bustling midtown subway stations will now do so without a roughly 400-pound autonomous robot lurking nearby. After a nearly six-month long trial, the New York Police Department is ending its use of an eye-catching “K5” mobile surveillance robot once heralded by city officials as a high-tech, lower labor cost solution to deter crime. Many New Yorkers and privacy advocates poked fun at the odd, egg-shaped robot, which some said seemed like more of an expensive, eye-grabbing gimmick than a meaningful security investment. The K5 may be gone for now, though city officials haven’t ruled out redeploying the K5 in the future. 

A spokesperson for New York’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information told PopSci that the controversial robot manufactured by the firm Knightscope had “completed its pilot deployment in the NYC subway system.” As of last week, there was no longer deployed in transit. A reporter at The New York Times spotted the robot parked, all alone, in a vacant storefront. A separate New York Daily News report citing a spokesperson from mayor Eric Adams’ administration revealed the robot has actually been sitting in storage since early December.

Why the NYPD used the robot

Knightscope describes its K5 as a “fully autonomous” security robot outfitted with four cameras capable of recording video but not audio. The robot can reach a maximum speed of 3 miles per hour and has a 360 degree range of motion. It cannot walk up stairs. Hospitals, warehouses, malls, and other private businesses have turned to the K5 in recent years to patrol and survey their premises. Adams initially championed the K5 last year for its purported ability to patrol for long hours without needing rest. 

“This is below minimum wage,” Adams said during a press conference last year. “No bathroom breaks, no meal breaks.” The NYPD reportedly paid $9 per hour to lease the K5. In total, the K5 pilot program reportedly cost the NYPD $12,250.

When Adams announced NYPD’s use of the K5 last year, he said the robot would patrol the subway during late night hours, between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. In practice though, it’s unclear how often the robot actually made those rounds. Aside from filming travelers, Adams and the NYPD said the K5 also has a button that connects people to a live representative via a 16-microphone array who can answer questions or report a potentially concerning incident. It’s unclear whether or not the K5’s short stint in the subway had any meaningful impact on crime or security. 

On its website, Knightscope claims its technologies are “known to be effective at reducing crime.” In reality, the hulking, egg-shaped robot received more attention for attracting selfies than for its surreptitious surveillance. A security officer named Kelvin Caines recently told The New York Times NYPD officers would “never let it [the robot] do anything.” He claimed he rarely saw the K5 separated from its charging section. The K5 was also regularly seen with an officer chaperon by its side, in part, to prevent the robot from being vandalized. That human overseer prevented the K5 from truly fulfilling its “autonomous” pitch. 

Knightscope Chief Client Officer Stacy Stephens told PopSci the company was unable to discuss specific details regarding its relationship with the NYPD, though he took issue with previous reporting suggesting the NYPD had retired the robot for good. A spokesperson for mayor Eric Adams’ administration told theTimes it’s “reviewing options for the K5’s next deployment as part of the pilot.”

Police robots draw public backlash 

This wouldn’t be the first time New York turned away from a robot only to redeploy it later. In 2021, the NYPD cut short its contract with the robotics firm Boston Dynamics following a wave of public backlash to the department’s use of its dog-shaped “Spot” robot. The NYPD reintroduced several Spot robots two years later with the goal of deploying them in areas too dangerous for police or firefighters to access. 

Privacy and civil liberties groups were skeptical of the K5 robot from the start, with some calling it both a privacy risk and a waste of resources. Some organizations, like the New York-based Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), feared real-times images collected by the K5 could be fed into existing facial recognition systems. Those types of facial recognition systems, which notoriously struggle to accurately identify nonwhite people, have led to the wrongful arrest of at least seven people in the US in recent years, nearly all of whom were Black

“I said this was a trash can on wheels, but it looks like the wheels aren’t even working at this point,” Surveillance Technology Oversight Project Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn said in a statement. “With major crimes down and the mayor mandating budget cuts across city agencies, why are we spending so much money on these gadgets?”

Shane Ferro, a staff attorney with the Digital Forensics Unit at the Legal Aid Society agreed with that assessment. 

“The Adams’ Administration continues to be distracted by false claims of high-tech solutions to age-old issues,” Ferro said in a statement. “The NYPD subway robot is an unnecessary expense and public gimmick that serves no legitimate safety purpose.” 

Police robots and drones gain traction despite public apprehension

New York’s police department has ramped up its use of robots, drones, facial recognition detection tools, and other controversial policing tech since Adams took office even as other cities like Boston have voted to ban similar tools. In total, New York reportedly spent nearly $3 billion on drones, robots, and other surveillance tools between 2007 and 2019. Adams isn’t alone in his embrace of new technologies either. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a California-based civil liberties organization, estimates more than 1,400 police departments across the US currently use drones in some form. Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot, meanwhile, has reportedly been deployed in the field by law enforcement in Houston, Los Angeles, and St. Petersburg, Florida in recent years. 

Physical police robots, more so than other forms of new policing tech, often draw backlash from local residents and community leaders who fear they could be misused or even outfitted with weapons. That’s not completely outside of the realm of possibility. In 2016, Dallas Police strapped an explosive device to a Remotec Andros Mark V-A1 robot and detonated it in order to kill an armed suspect. More recently, San Francisco officials approved a policy that would permit police to use remote controlled robots to kill suspects, only to have the policy reversed following a torrent of public dissent.

For the time being at least, it looks like New York won’t have police robots roaming through its subway system. Overall policing trends, however, suggest robots assisting police may become more commonplace over time.