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Pierce County sheriff has a new tool in arsenal — a robot

By Sean Robinson
The Tacoma News Tribune

Armed with a new bomb-sniffing robot, a squad of Pierce County sheriff's deputies Friday swiftly dismantled a device made to resemble a bomb.

A refuse worker found the object Thursday night in a Spanaway recycling center in the 14400 block of Pacific Avenue.

The device looked like a modified red fire extinguisher, but contained no explosives.

It was equipped with a wristwatch, wiring, a battery and a circuit board, strapped to a metal cylinder with black tape. On the side, the words "CAUTION! EXPLOSIVE!" were handwritten in black letters.

The worker called his boss Friday morning. Sheriff's investigators arrived about 9 a.m., along with the Washington State Patrol. The investigation closed eight blocks of Pacific Avenue for about an hour. Investigators found no explosive materials inside the device and were unsure why it was left where it was.

"The container was empty," said sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer. "It wasn't going to hurt anybody. If it was a hoax, it was an elaborate hoax, sure meant to scare somebody."

To examine the device, investigators used a new tool - a $130,000 robot bought with a federal grant from the Department of Homeland Defense.

It rolls on four wheels, and stands about chest high. A metal clamp extends from the end of its metallic arm.

"It did what it was supposed to do," Troyer said after Friday's incident.

The robot arrived a few weeks ago. The trip to Spanaway was its second mission. Its first came a few days back, when it disabled a pipe bomb investigators discovered in a toilet bowl.

Using the robot helps investigators respond to potential bombs more swiftly, Troyer said. In some cases, it eliminates the need to send a detective in protective gear, and helps investigators clear up incidents more quickly.

"Otherwise, you might have a half-day or daylong event," he said.

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