Duke University Students Use 3D Printing to Create Robotic Vehicle, Designed to Keep Police Officers and Civilians Safe

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duke-university-logoI, like probably most American drivers, have been pulled over by the cops a time or two. They were fairly minor incidents: speeding, and once for a burned out headlight. I doubt the police officers who pulled me over thought that I looked threatening, but luckily, it’s not my job to determine who and who may not be a threat. Every time a police officer pulls a vehicle over, they are potentially walking into a life-threatening situation; the gravity of this never fails to amaze me, and I am forever grateful to law enforcement for taking this on every day. This past July, in response to multiple violent interactions between motorists and police officers, two Duke University students came up with the brilliant idea for a robot that could potentially make routine traffic stops safer for both parties. This idea turned into the patent-pending Sentinel Robotic System.

guardianvx1Duke senior Vaibhav Tadepalli and PhD candidate Chris Reyes met in 2014 while they were working in the same lab, and have collaborated on multiple startup ventures, including Trapezium Technologies, which was founded to make the lives of law enforcement and citizens safer. The Sentinel Vx1 is a robotic vehicle that’s deployed from a police car, and is the primary interaction between the motorist and law enforcement. It was designed to protect the people on either side of a routine traffic stop. Reyes and Tadepalli were inspired after hearing about two separate interactions between police and motorists, just days apart, that ended in gun violence.

sentinel-extendedTadepalli said, “We looked at each other and said, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this because this is clearly a problem. There needs to be a safer alternative that allows everyone to walk away alive.'”

The Sentinel can autonomously drive to a stopped vehicle, while the officer stays in his or her own cruiser. It’s equipped with a video camera screen on a lift, which can rise up to seven feet in the air, and begin a two-way video chat between the two cars; it’s reminiscent of a Skype call, but the officers are still able to have a 180° view inside the stopped vehicle. In addition to initiating the video chat, Sentinel’s wide-angle camera can also read and scan driver’s licences and registration, as well as the vehicle’s license plate, and then transfer the information to the dashboard computer inside the police cruiser.

Reyes explained, “We’re making it very secure, so that none of the information is saved or stored on the robot, and everything is sent straight to the cop’s computer for processing.”

Duke Innovation Co-Lab 3D printers

Duke Innovation Co-Lab 3D printers

Tadepalli and Reyes have been designing and 3D printing most of the parts for Sentinel in the Duke Innovation Co-Lab; the university has multiple 3D printers on campus, and even completed a case study in order to streamline the management of their printers. The Innovation Co-Lab, described as a “creativity incubator,” houses an Innovation Studio with over 60 3D printers, ranging from MakerBot and Ultimaker to Formlabs and one Markforged. There are also CNC machines and laser cutters, a 3D scanner, digital modeling workstations, and a variety of electronics. Working in the Co-Lab allows the two co-founders of Trapezium Technologies to quickly develop new and improved versions of the Sentinel robot, thanks to feedback from the local police department.

They have consulted the police often during Sentinel’s development, and even went on a ride-along with a female officer.

“I’m still really nervous, and she turned to me and said, ‘Imagine how we must feel.’ That really spoke to me,” Tadepalli said of the ride-along experience.

3d-modeling-sentinel3D printing is helping Reyes and Tadepalli with some of the key development aspects. The two designed Sentinel from the ground up, as they don’t believe military robots are able to be re-purposed in an effective way to police civilians. They are also doing what they can to keep costs down for Sentinel: other police robots generally cost around $20,000, and they hope to market Sentinel for around $10,000. 3D printing the major components for Sentinel helps cut down on costs. But they’re not just trying to save money so they won’t lose out if the robot doesn’t work.

Tadepalli explained, “We want to keep costs low to put Sentinel on as many vehicles as we possibly can, to make the impact as big as we possibly can.”

“We’re passionate about this particular product because we see that if we can get it deployed, we can save lives.”

duke-startup-challenge-logoTrapezium Technologies advanced to the second round in the Duke Startup Challenge recently, and hope that Sentinel will be completely ready to implement in police departments by January of 2018. Until then, the robot is currently going through simulation testing, with plans to begin field-testing soon. They were awarded an Innovation Co-Lab grant, and are using it to equip the robot with a police officer’s senses, like the ability to detect explosives, alcohol, and marijuana smoke.

They also hope to give Sentinel capabilities not available to an officer standing at a motorist’s window, such as thermal imaging software that can detect the infrared radiation of an object, like a hidden weapon. However, Reyes and Tapedalli promise that they will never equip Sentinel with any weapons, lethal or non-lethal. Their robot was created as a means for safe communication between police officers and drivers, and to remotely collect information: it does not have the necessary intelligence to make its own decisions, like whether to shoot or tase a suspect.

L-R: Christopher Reyes and Vaibhav Tadepalli [Image: WRAL]

L-R: Christopher Reyes and Vaibhav Tadepalli [Image: WRAL]

While Sentinel can digitally issue traffic tickets, it is not intended as a police officer substitute, but merely a safety buffer for civilians and officers.

Reyes said, “We’re not trying to take a job away, we just want to make it easier and safer for the person who does that job.”

This is a great example of how combining 3D printing technology with a simple but inspiring idea – save lives – can result in a functional product with actual life-saving capabilities. To learn more about the Sentinel’s capabilities and why it was created, take a look at the video:

Discuss in the Traffic Stops forum at

[Sources: Duke Chronicle, WRAL]



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