On Monday of this week, a man threatening to jump from a Silicon Valley freeway overpass peacefully turned himself in to police, after a robot intervened in what had been a more than five-hour standoff.
Just before 1 pm, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) got a call about a man standing on an overpass linking Highway 680 and Highway 280 in San Jose. The man had a knife, and appeared to be ready to jump onto the freeway below.
The CHP shut down southbound 280 and 680 at Highway 101, leading to an epic rush hour traffic jam while police tried to convince the man to give himself up. Ultimately, a robot, specifically, a Northrup Grumman Remotec Andros F6A, more typically used for bomb disposal, saved the day.
Here’s how the situation evolved, according to Chris Sciba, a sergeant with the San Jose Police Department’s Mobile Emergency Response Group and Equipment Unit, who I spoke with shortly after the incident:
“A subject was walking on high overpass. An officer pulled up and made contact with him, at some point the officer saw a knife and backed off. The subject positioned himself in manner that made CHP think he was going to jump. CHP [called in] the San Jose Police Department.
“Because nobody wanted to force a confrontation with a suicidal man with a knife, the MERGE unit was asked to come out with trained negotiators. We took positions about 150 yards to either side of subject on the overpass.
“Negotiaters attempted to talk to him via a remote PA system, but that is not the optimal way of talking to him, so the decision was made to deliver a phone to him. The safest way to do that and not cause confrontation was to use a robot.
“[Because] delivering food is a way of encouraging someone to do something we want them to do, we sent pizza with phone. We [instructed the subject] that if he wanted the pizza released, to pick up the phone. The robot was holding the pizza, it released the pizza once the subject picked up phone to talk to negotiators.
“The robot was also equipped with cameras, audio, and a speaker, so we were able to get a closer look at [the subject], see how he was armed, see what he did with knife, and observe facial expressions, to see if he appeared agitated.
“Our negotiators were able to convince him to surrender. At that point he dropped the knife, and the robot was able to confirm that. Then he walked up to officers and was taken into custody [just after 7 pm, less than an hour after the robot got involved] without incident.”
Just another day on the job for a San Jose Robocop.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.