Friday, February 22, 2008
The Bum Bot
Rufus Terrill has had it with the drug dealers, petty thieves and vandals he says roam the streets outside his downtown Atlanta bar, O'Terrills.
But instead of calling the police or hiring private security guards, Terrill reached for his toolbox.
He mounted an old meat smoker atop a three-wheel scooter and attached a spotlight, an infrared camera, water cannon and a loudspeaker. He covered the contraption with impact-resistant rubber and painted the whole thing jet black.
And so was born what surely must be Atlanta's first remote-controlled, robotic vigilante.
Late at night several times a week, Terrill powers up the 4-foot-tall, 300 pound device and reaches for a remote control packed with two joysticks and various knobs and switches. Standing on a nearby corner, he maneuvers the machine down the block, often to a daycare center where it accosts what Terrill says are drug dealers, vagrants and others who shouldn't be there.
He flashes the robot's spotlight and grabs a walkie-talkie, which he uses to boom his disembodied voice over the robot's sound system.
"I tell them they are trespassing, it's private property, and they have to leave," he said. "They throw bottles and cans at it. That's when I shoot the water cannon. They just scatter like roaches."
Terrill hasn't named his creation. The day care center operator, Lydia Meredith, lovingly calls it "robo-cop," a nod to the popular movie series about a half man, half machine police officer.
O'Terrill's regulars, who cheer on the robot from the safety of the bar's porch, have coined a much less politically correct moniker: the bum-bot.
Whatever you call it, it's not an elegant looking machine. Terrill is on the money when he describes it as a cross between the "Star Wars" robot R2-D2 and a tank.
Terrill is far from your average hobbyist. An engineer by training, he also ran for lieutenant governor in 2006, finishing last among the five Democrats on the ballot.
Terrill says deploying the robot has helped keep crime in check, preventing car break-ins and drug deals and stopping vandals from trashing the day care center. The water cannon is on a low setting and is merely a nuisance, he said.
Terrill insists he's not a kook, that he's serious about using his robot to fight crime.
"The city lacks the ability to control crime in the area," he said. "I think I'm doing what I have to do."
Atlanta police officials said they haven't received any complaints about the robot. But police spokeswoman Lisa Keyes said Terrill would be committing an assault if he intentionally sprays water on someone when in control of the robot.
Terrill said he is not restricting anyone's rights and noted that he has written permission from the day care owner to use the robot on her property.
Much of the crime in the area, Terrill claims, is related to a nearby shelter run by the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless at the corner of Peachtree and Pine streets. As many as 1,000 people crowd into the facility on winter nights.
The Task Force's director, Anita Beatty, said the area's crime can be traced to drug dealers who prey on the homeless, many of whom suffer from drug addiction.
"I'm not saying everybody who lives here is an angel," said Beatty. "But it's simply not true that this place attracts crime to the neighborhood."
Beatty said she had heard about the robot but had yet to see it in action.
""I just hope he keeps his little robot away from our place, because it sounds kind of angry," she said.
But some are glad to see stepped-up security in the neighborhood.
Meredith, who manages the day care facility, Renaissance Learning Center, said the robot has helped protect her property.
"I'm happy to have the robo-cop," she said, laughing. "I wish I had two or three more robo-cops. I wish I could afford to have a robo-cop myself."
Terrill said his efforts have been criticized by some, who suggest he's out to get the homeless. One person who's been face-to-um, face with the robot told him it's inhumane to use a machine against people. Terrill said the man threatened to shoot him, but so far he's not been harmed.
Terrill is undeterred.
"It's not a fight against the homeless, it's a fight against crime," he said. "I'm just trying to run a business in a peaceful manner."