2 Wheel Drive: Law enforcement applications for the Segway
by Teresa McCallion
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Amid the terrible destruction and terrified crowds following the recent London subway bombings, British police officers rode battery-powered transportation devices made by U.S.-based Segway. The transport units helped officers move quickly and efficiently through streets so clogged with cars and pedestrians, even bicycles were difficult to maneuver.
The self-balancing, two-wheeled Segway Human Transporter (HT) was originally promoted as a fun, innovative transportation solution, but today, you are just as likely to see a police officer riding one as a commuter. According to company officials, that’s not surprising. The device was designed with police work in mind. “Some of the very first prototypes had police shields,” says Klee Kleber, vice president of marketing for Segway LLC.
Because of its size and agility, the units prove especially useful in congested metropolitan areas, particularly when walking is too slow and police cruisers are too large. The HT can travel up to 12.5 mph, approximately the speed an average human can sprint. It can move across a grassy field as easily as a paved roadway, effortlessly transition from outdoors to indoors, and pass through doorways, down halls and into elevators.
In the United States, more than 100 law enforcement departments and security providers from fancy international resorts to local universities have purchased Segways, and military police and logistics personnel on bases are looking into them as well. To date, police and security represent nearly half of all institutional sales, Kleber says.
Could the Segway make sense for your department? Following are case studies of how they’ve worked out in airport and bomb-squad settings.
The Maryland Transportation Authority police (MdTA) has been using Segways for about a year. As certified law enforcement officers, they are responsible for enforcing laws and controlling traffic at various locations, including the Baltimore/Washington International Airport in Maryland.
MdTA Lieutenant Eric Garrison was part of the original group that evaluated the Segway for use at the airport. He has since been promoted and reassigned, but he remains an enthusiastic advocate.
Garrison said the testing process was rigorous. The MdTA used the units in and around crowds and in inclement weather to test for durability and reliability. The study group received feedback from the public, airport management and the officers who operated the transport units. The team appraised the potential for injury and theft deterrence, measured officer morale after officers used a Segway during a shift, and explored future applications.
What they found was remarkable. The officers were begging to get a Segway, saying it saves them from expending a tremendous amount of energy during their shift. On average, an airport police officer walks 6–8 hours a day, Garrison explains. In addition, each officer packs approximately 30 lbs. of equipment as they patrol the airport, primarily on foot. “That weight takes a toll on you,” he says. Officers who use the Segway could arrive on scene faster and less fatigued. In addition, officers racing to an incident on an HT were less likely to alarm bystanders than an officer running on foot.
Officers even preferred Segways for traffic control. The smaller turning radius allows officers to get in and around traffic more efficiently than a car, bicycle or motorcycle. And, officers on a Segway stand 8 inches off the ground, providing clear visibility even among automobiles.
Following the evaluation, the MdTA purchased nine HTs with plans to add a new unit each fiscal year. Neither the MdTA nor Segway can say for sure how long a unit will last in this type of commercial environment. Purchasing a unit a year is the agency’s way of keeping the fleet up, Garrison says.
The MdTA use off-the-shelf, unmodified units. The only accessories include a cargo bag, headlight and pedestrian alert that beeps to help officers avoid collisions with those on foot.
An HT is assigned to each zone of the airport’s security system, and one officer per shift takes the Segway. Not all of the officers are comfortable with the technology, however, and Garrison says using one is up to the individual. In fact, not everyone can ride the Segways. Garrison says officers who are 6' 3" tall or taller are discouraged because of low-hanging signage, banners and doorways inside the airport. Segway recommends a weight limit of 260 lbs.
Because the units are so unusual, Segways are an excellent crowd management tool, Garrison says. People naturally gravitate to an officer on a Segway. “It’s an oddity,” he notes. “Our guys love it.” At the airport, MdTA officers often give demo rides to the public.
The MdTA officers have found that by keeping speeds under 8 mph, the HTs can go for 8–10 hours without recharging. That time drops to four hours of battery life if the unit runs at higher speeds for an extended period. The HT will quickly recharge at any standard wall outlet, typically within 4–8 hours. Fortunately for the MdTA, outlets are plentiful at the airport. “We have never [run] out of power,” Garrison says.
Training is simple. A 30-minute video comes with each purchase. Basic training takes about 10 minutes. Because law enforcement personnel must learn to use a Segway in extreme circumstances, such as jumping curbs and riding escalators, Segway representatives can provide custom training. Trainees learn to make basic repairs and to disassemble and reassemble a unit. They spend the rest of the time riding around to become comfortable driving the HT. “You can learn to drive in 10 minutes,” Garrison says. “After a day on the machine, you feel like an expert.”
Maintenance is also simple. “It’s basically a computer on wheels,” Garrison says. Parts that need to be replaced are simply removed from the unit. “They’re extremely easy to take apart and put together,” he adds. “The device is idiot-proof.”
So far, the only problems the MdTA has experienced concern the fenders that partially cover the wheels. Under daily use, the plastic has cracked. Segway is investigating a solution and promised to either replace the fenders with a stronger material or otherwise modify them, Garrison says.
During his time with the Segway fleet, the most frequent complaint Garrison heard involved speed, or the need for more of it. According to Segway officials, however, that’s not likely to happen. The company designed the HT to interact in pedestrian-filled areas just like a person moving at the same speed.
The MdTA reports only two non-injury incidents with the Segways, both involving airport patrons. A failsafe automatically shuts off a unit if it senses the rider is no longer on board.
Finally, it’s hard to steal a Segway. At approximately 90 lbs., it’s not easily carried off, and each key is coded for a specific unit. Should a Segway be stolen, it will not operate without its key.
On the Bomb Squad
While the MdTA officers thread through crowds, direct traffic and race to emergencies on HTs, the Ventura County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Department bomb squad uses them to move slowly and carefully towards its target. “The machine was tailor-made for our application,” says Sergeant Paul Higgason, a member of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department’s bomb squad since 1985.
Two-and-a-half years ago, one of the team’s members recognized an HT application for hazardous materials work. He contacted Segway and, as a result, the bomb squad teamed up with the company for an in-depth product evaluation.
One of the challenges the squad faced was walking into a bombsite under the weight of the suit and equipment. Wearing an 80-lb. suit and carrying approximately 40 lbs. of equipment, including air packs, each member had to move into a decontamination area, conduct their procedures and return. The study found that the Segway gets the team within the target area quickly, saving on oxygen. Plus, “we’re none the worse for the wear,” Higgason says.
The 10-member bomb squad—all deputies—has typically used vehicles like golf carts for long approaches. Unlike the carts, which provide little in the way of maneuverability, the Segways travel easily over rough terrain and ease through small spaces. “If you can walk there, you can get there on a Segway,” Higgason says. Officers in bomb suits also found it easier to stand on the Segways rather than try to sit in a vehicle.
A key piece of the field-testing included whether or not the HTs could withstand the decontamination process. The bomb squad found the electronics and other components were adequately contained and remained sound after decontamination.
Ventura County has two Segways and is applying for Homeland Security grants to help purchase four more. It chose the XT model and made some slight modifications, including removing the standard saddlebags and replacing them with a tray to more easily accommodate the team’s equipment. The team also added a trailer hitch so the unit could tow a wagon the team had constructed to transport an injured person.
While the Segway HT may not have caught on with the general public as expected, this innovative machine works for certain law enforcement and security agencies. Just as bicycles, horses and motorcycles have carved out their own niche, the Segway will likely find a place in many departments. The Segway design lends itself to some unique law enforcement tasks, and officers will probably continue to find new uses as knowledge about its capabilities spreads.
Teresa McCallion is a freelance public-safety writer based in Bonney Lake, Wash. Contact her at email@example.com.
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