R2D2 With a Badge

June 14, 1995

Robocop saved the day in Linthicum last week.

A squat, little, wheeled contraption with video-camera eyes, a metal claw for a hand and a shotgun mounted above its left arm wheeled into a Motel 6 and accomplished in three minutes what police couldn't do in 25 hours -- ferret out a man suspected of having a bomb without somebody getting hurt.

Along with automatic teller machines and the remote control gadget for television sets, this could be one of the greatest technological advances of the computer age. It's the sort of thing some of us imagined as children as we contemplated a Jetson-like future filled with mechanical sidekicks that would perform all the chores we hated. It's R2D2 with a badge.

Even technology buffs have to marvel at last week's heroics. The metallic robot, a valued member of the state Fire Marshal's Office's bomb squad, safely ended a standoff that very likely could have resulted in bloodshed had it been handled by mere mortals.

If Anne Arundel County police had stormed the motel room, where Marvin Eli Kirsh was thought to be armed and dangerous, they could have shot Mr. Kirsh or vice versa. Instead, the suspect probably was scared out of 10 years' growth when our unnamed mechanical crime fighter smashed through a window, scooted across the room to where he was hiding behind a blanket under a sink, reached out and yanked off his cover.

No wonder the suspect got up and tried to flee. What else could he do? Bullets and body blows don't do much good against a robot. Neither, it turns out, does running. Robocop quickly decked the culprit with a left hook, knocking him into the waiting arms of police.

Behind every successful robot is a good man or woman. In this case, that was Deputy State Fire Marshal C. Mark Van Baalen.

He operated the robot; he also encouraged the office to buy it for the bomb squad five years ago, figuring it could be used to spare fire marshals the danger of carrying explosives. It cost $46,000, and in five years it seems to have earned its keep. Before the Linthicum adventure, the robot had helped out in dozens of bomb incidents. It never complains, never asks for a raise, doesn't flinch in the face of danger, fame and glory don't give it a swelled head. It doesn't even feel bad that no one has given it a name.

Now there's a hero for you.

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