The Fly on the Wall
Smack! The lifeless mosquito falls to the ground as the man’s hairy hand lowers from the back of his tattooed neck. As he walks away, he doesn’t notice the sparks and the little puff of smoke that emanate from the mosquito on the ground. He’s busy; he has four hostages inside a building and is threatening to kill them all. Armed with a rifle, he is irrational and makes no demands. The tactical response team is already on the scene and prepared to handle the situation. This response, though, is unlike anything seen in previous decades.
Instead of operators getting out of an armored vehicle and surrounding the building, a van filled with technicians launched a drone. This drone had the size and appearance of a common housefly. With built-in avoidance technology, the drone found its way through the ductwork and into the building. It located the suspect, landed on the wall, and technicians visually confirmed the target, “painting” a location on the suspect’s neck. Seconds later, a “mosquito drone” was launched from the van. It worked its way through the ductwork using data relayed to it by the fly. The mosquito landed on the suspect’s neck unnoticed and delivered a less-lethal dose of a sedative. Seconds after the mosquito fell to the ground, the suspect sat down beside it and peacefully fell asleep. The tactical team members walked in, rescued the hostages, took custody of the suspect, and concluded the incident.
Today, responding to a critical incident like this one is a volatile and rapidly changing event for the police. During such an incident, the objective of a tactical team is to protect the public and responding officers, and to stop the threat. There are many means by which a tactical team accomplishes its objective; however, there are risks to all involved. This article will address those risks and focus on technologies on the horizon to help the future tactical or SWAT team accomplish their objective with less danger, fewer lives lost, and more peaceful outcomes. The future of SWAT may barely be seen by human eyes – it will be about nanotechnology.
The term “nanotechnology” may have different meanings in the English language. The precise meaning of “nano” is “billionth part,” but it can also mean “extremely small,” “regarding very small entities,” or “micro”1. For our purposes, the term “nanotechnology” will mean both “billionth part” and “micro.”
Police tactical safety equipment, drones, and robots are bulky and easily detected. There is always the possibility of the sniper being compromised or a round missing its target when fired by the sniper. Current technology impacts the tactical team’s ability to gather intelligence and operate within the scope of their mission.
Although advantageous, current tactical technology has its limitations. Take, for example, body armor. It is bulky, heavy, and rigid. Designed to protect the operator from an incoming round, its reduced maneuverability can put the operator in a compromising position and greater risk. It’s a double-edged sword. You need it for protection, but wearing it increases the likelihood of an armed suspect seeing you. Although body armor serves a critical role in personal safety, the weight of the armor can hamper stability and movement, making it more challenging to balance and stop or initiate movements2.
The current generation of drones and robotics are easily detected due to their size; they are also hampered by limited battery life and mobility. Today, it is relatively easy for a suspect to hide in a place where neither a land-based robot nor a drone can navigate. Fortunately, the limitations of drone and robotic intelligence-gathering capabilities will dramatically improve in the near future.
The SWAT sniper/observer team has limitations as well. The team still relies on ballistic calculations to ensure the critical bullet hits its mark. Several variables affect bullet flight, especially at longer ranges. Those variables include distance, wind, altitude, atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity, and the earth’s spin or the Coriolis effect. Though accurate, there is always the possibility of human error in the calculations and marksmanship3. Lastly, the sniper/observer team has the constant concern of compromise. They somewhat reduce that risk with camouflage; however, there are technologies in development to help in this regard as well.
Technology is improving exponentially 4. It is developing faster, getting smaller, and becoming more economical 5. What seemed impossible just a few years back is now a reality. Here’s where we’ll see the greatest changes.
Future Body Armor
Nanotechnology will enable flexible, lightweight body armor the thickness of a T-shirt instead of the cumbersome body armor now in use. The technology used in this development is the carbon nanotube or CNT. CNT properties allow for a more flexible, lightweight material with excellent shock absorbing abilities to disperse the bullet’s impact. In its early development, CNTs had obstacles that scientists were trying to overcome. The non-penetrating forces could leave severe bruising or damage internal organs, so blunt force impact was still a concern 6. This technology has now developed to the point of producing “bulletproof suits” “that can stop ammunition up to a .44 magnum.” It is still however, “hard to mass-produce carbon nanotubes and integrate it into cloth-like fabrics” 7.
How soon we will see SWAT operators wearing “T-shirt” body armor capable of stopping a rifle round is difficult to determine; however, that technology is coming. In the meantime, we will likely see body armor get lighter and more flexible as CNTs are integrated into various materials. Stiffening polymer, which includes CNTs, is already being introduced into Kevlar material to form a conductive network to detect impact, which results in a “smart fabric that offers 90% more ballistic and 50% more stab resistance than Kevlar alone”8. Once lightweight, flexible CNT armor is in use, tactical team operators will be able to maneuver inside the scene of a critical incident with significantly increased flexibility, lighter weight on their shoulders, and a reduced chance of compromise. This technology will extend beyond the tactical team to eventually be utilized by all who work in policing.
The future tactical team will utilize drones and robotics that look like insects with built-in avoidance systems. How many times have you had that pesky fly or mosquito buzzing around your face just to have it return time after time while you try to take your long-needed nap? You might want to take a closer look next time that happens. There are claims that the federal government is already using insect spy drones. To the naked eye they look like real insects with “flight patterns of winged insects.” “Equipped with a camera and a microphone they can land on you, take samples of your DNA, or leave tracking nanotechnology on your skin, all the while being controlled by someone half a world away”9. Though law enforcement might not utilize a drone the size of a mosquito within the next year or two, it is likely they will be able to utilize drones like the Black Hornet with FLIR capability, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand10. Researchers have produced a tiny microchip that will help honeybee-sized drones navigate in areas where GPS signal is unavailable and process inertial measurements to determine where they are in space11. This technology could evolve to the point of having mosquito-sized surveyors going out, collecting photographs, and returning to the palm of your hand. The nanodrone could potentially operate for months on one battery and process real-time camera images at a rate of 171 frames per second12.
Researchers at Princeton University and University of Washington have developed cameras the size of a grain of salt that can produce photos comparable to conventional cameras. Those same researchers are working on ways to add more capabilities to the camera, including object detection ability and other sensors that will be used in robotics13. The Pentagon is considering arming “tiny drones” with less-lethal capabilities14, which leads one to conclude that these same capabilities may eventually be available to the police. Research projects are looking into the possibility of police using pharmaceutical injections as a less-lethal use of force option15. There is even talk of computers using algorithms to predict human behavior16. One must consider then, if a computer could be miniaturized to a micro-scale, would it be possible to place it in a micro drone to predict a suspect’s actions during a critical incident.
Future Sniper Team
For SWAT/sniper use, self-steering long-range bullets and rifles with ballistic computers are on the horizon for the sniper/observer team17. This “precision guided firearm” takes human error out of the equation and enables even the novice marksman to hit the target. By utilizing lasers and sensors that were once only found inside a military tank, the shooter simply places an “X” on the target, which locks the rifle on the target. An internal computer then calculates “bullet performance, sensor data, and even barrel wear. It crunches this data, determines when the rifle is on target and then fires.”
To allow SWAT/sniper teams to move without detection and locate closer to the subject, scientists are working on producing a “nanosuit,” comprised of material that can scan the surrounding area and modify its skin color, making the wearer invisible, thus creating energy-efficient cloaking. Though popular in science fiction and fantasy movies, this technology is on the technological horizon, so law enforcement should be aware of it for future applications.
As the tactical team utilizes emerging technologies, they can expect support on one side of the fence and criticism on the other. Critics will argue the technology raises privacy issues and will test search and seizure laws. Others believe operators of drones may develop a “PlayStation mentality” due to the distance of the operator to target, thus becoming desensitized to the moral implications of taking another person’s life. Supporters may argue the advanced technologies will provide better public safety, significant cost savings, reduced injuries to officers, and better officer safety. Supporters say that if law enforcement does not explore these technologies as they emerge, they may fall into the wrong hands and be used against them. As law enforcement embraces these advances, agencies can anticipate social and political obstacles. Search and seizure laws will be tested, privacy issues will come to the political forefront, and there will be those who feel a need for governmental control. These obstacles will create a need for professional, ethical guidelines to include regulatory oversight. In the modern era, it is crucial for law enforcement to gain the public’s trust and proactively develop policy and procedures to help put any skepticism at ease. It is critical that the police anticipate objections and include the stakeholders in these deliberations so they can be part of the decision-making process.
How should the police approach this matter? History is wrought with examples of companies that either ignored or embraced new technology. Take, for example, the Kodak company. Though once a giant in the camera and film industry, they failed to recognize the importance of the digital revolution, eventually leading to their demise. Conversely, Google embraced new technology and encouraged its employees to spend 20% of their time developing innovative ideas, helping to make them a successful company.
Law enforcement must embrace new technology and recognize the make-up of the tactical team must evolve. Failure to do so will limit the use of those technologies and put officers in danger should that technology be used against them. Law enforcement must recognize there is technology on the horizon that could impact tactical team response; it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the average officer to keep up with it. Most officers lack the time, ability, and interest to keep up with those advancements. There are, however, those within the ranks with both technical ability and tactical experience that can identify technology important to the tactical team. To facilitate this, a technical team must be established and embedded within the tactical team. Law enforcement must take the same approach as Google and provide the “technical team” members a significant amount of time to explore the technologies on the horizon and provide the tactical team with its findings. No matter what the size of the agency, it will take a creative approach to select personnel to explore new technologies, and then to shepherd their consideration from beginning to end. To do less will be to fall behind, and to expose officers and community members to added dangers.
Lance Bryant is a Lieutenant with the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office, currently assigned to the Support Services Division where he oversees training, personnel, range, armory, internal affairs and more. In his 17 years in law enforcement, Bryant has held a variety of positions including collateral assignments as a SWAT sniper team leader, range master, gang unit member, field training officer, CIT member, CSI member and tribal liaison.
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