San Antonio airport to get 420 pound ‘autonomous security robot’

Director of Airports says the Knightscope K5 robot will be used to check door alarms in a secure area

SAN ANTONIO – It’s a few guns shy of RoboCop, but the San Antonio International Airport thinks a nearly 5′ 5″ tall, 420-pound “autonomous security robot” will help improve its security.

The San Antonio City Council agreed Thursday to lease a K5 robot from California-based company, Knightscope, to check on alarms set off by opened doors in a secure area of the airport. It could be deployed within a month.

The council voted 7-3 Thursday morning to approve a 5-year, $109,000 contract for a subscription to the robot. The contract begins with a 1-year subscription for $21,000 and has four additional, annual renewal options, though an aviation department official also said they can cancel it monthly “if we need to.”

Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2), Councilwoman Adriana Rocha-Garcia (D4), and Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5) cast the three dissenting votes. Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran (D3) was absent from the meeting.

According to Knightscope’s website and a sales brochure, the K5 robot is made to run around the clock and can even charge itself. It can stream and record HD video, use two-way communication, has “thermal anomaly detection,” and can recognize license plates.

San Antonio Director of Airports Jesus Saenz Jr. said the robot will only be used in a secure, non-public area indoors.

The airport has alarms “daily” from doors that are opened either inappropriately or accidentally, he said. Although a large portion are false alarms, he said federal regulations require they respond to them.

By positioning the robot near doors whose alarms are most often set off, Saenz said the airport would be more efficient and effective.

When an alarm is triggered, the unarmed robot will respond and use its cameras to check the badge of the person who set it off. However, Saenz told reporters that an airport employee back in their command center will be the one making the call over whether they’re supposed to be there - not the robot.

“This is not going to be utilized for surveillance - in no purposes whatsoever. This is not to surveillance individuals. This is a response to door alarms that occur at the airport,” Saenz told the city council.

Saenz said the strategic placement of the robot will mean the airport won’t have to consistently place employees in those spots, which will free them up for different areas.

He also believes the robot’s presence could remind people they’re entering an area where they need the right access privileges and therefore cut down on accidental alarms.

The airport will have an employee with the robot as they start the program, to see how it goes at first.

The same model robot was recently used to patrol the Times Square subway station in New York City, though WABC reports the robot had officers assigned to chaperone it through its entire run.

When the NYPD robot was originally put into operation in September of 2023, WABC reported it had multiple cameras and two-way communication and intended to deter crime and to capture crimes in progress, as well as a panic button riders could use to alert patrol officers.

WABC also reported that K5 “has facial recognition capabilities and listening devices-but Mayor Eric Adams insisted neither will be activated.”

San Antonio’s contract had been scheduled to be passed with little fanfare as part of the council’s “consent agenda” - an omnibus, yes-or-no vote the council uses to dispense with the majority of its regular business each week.

However, McKee-Rodriguez asked the contract be pulled for its own vote because he said autonomous robots “raise concern about privacy, surveillance and racial profiling throughout the country.”

“It’s not your intention to create, a space where surveillance is happening,” the councilman told Saenz before voting against the contract. “But if the robot has the ability to collect data and information and transmit that, that possibility remains. That door is open.”

Castillo asked whether the robot would replace any employees, but Saenz said it would not. Instead, he said it was meant to “supplement our overall security posture.”

“This is a supplement to our staff to ensure that we are moving in the right direction, to improve our efficiency and our effectiveness and response time to what we’re doing,” Saenz said.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who supported the contract, and City Manager Erik Walsh both said the city needed to have a discussion on policies and potential uses of artificial intelligence and other rapidly developing technologies.

Walsh said the city has already started to have some of those conversations internally, but based on Thursday’s conversation, “something we should gather more for and maybe have a public conversation with the council on it.”

“My intuitive sense is that we shouldn’t be replacing people for stuff, especially forward-facing, and public-facing or dealing with employees. Is there back of the house type of stuff? Maybe,” Walsh said.

Full video below:

About the Authors

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

Azian Bermea is a photojournalist at KSAT.

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