What weighs almost 400 pounds, stands roughly 5-foot-3, and, according to Mayor Eric Adams, will be a valuable tool in New York City’s law enforcement efforts?
To Mark Radlein, a restaurant manager, it looked like an oversized version of R2-D2, the droid from the “Star Wars” films. “I don’t know what it’s supposed to be,” he said as he took a picture of the object.
Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a privacy and civil rights group, had a more dismissive view.
A “trash can on wheels,” he called it.
Its official name is K5, and its California-based maker, Knightscope, describes it as a “fully autonomous outdoor security robot.” It is currently used in hospitals, malls, airports, warehouses and casinos, and will soon be deployed in the Times Square subway station, the city’s busiest underground transit hub.
The robot, armed with four cameras, will record video but not audio. It will not employ facial recognition and — at a moment when the mayor is calling for vital city agencies to slash 5 percent of their budgets — the cost of leasing it averages out to about $9 per hour.
“This is below minimum wage,” Mr. Adams said. “No bathroom breaks, no meal breaks.”
The robot will begin its pilot on Friday night and spend two weeks mapping the station at Times Square. It will be accompanied by a human officer from midnight to 6 a.m. to introduce K5 to the public. There will be docks where K5 can recharge, like a giant Roomba, the self-directing vacuum.
Once the pilot is complete, the robot is expected to patrol the station’s mezzanine level, but not the platforms, becoming a “mobile camera” that straphangers could use to call for help.
The rollout of the new technology comes as the city’s subway stations are springing to life after a pandemic slump. Richard A. Davey, president of New York City Transit, said 4 million riders used the subway each day from Tuesday through Thursday, most likely making this the highest ridership week in three years.
Mr. Adams, who once patrolled the subways as a transit cop, was elected on a promise to reduce crime without violating New Yorkers’ civil rights. He supports using technology to enhance law enforcement.
The mayor returned in August from a trip to Israel, where he saw how law enforcement there use drones in conjunction with motorcycles at the country’s National Police Academy. In New York, the police deployed drones over Labor Day weekend to monitor the more than two million people who attended festivities associated with the West Indian American Day Parade.
Mr. Adams is also a proponent of Digidog, a robotic dog that is deployed in emergency situations such as building collapses.
“Public safety and justice are the prerequisites to more prosperity, particularly in our subway system,” Mr. Adams said, dusting off a catchphrase he often used during his mayoral campaign. “When people feel unsafe to use our trains and buses, it impacts our economic stability as well.”
Privacy rights advocates remain skeptical. In May, the Legal Aid Society requested that the Police Department’s inspector general investigate the department’s use of surveillance technology, contending that it violated the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act, a city law requiring the department to publish details about how new technology is being used and the data it collects.
Mr. Cahn said he was wary that the K5 might eventually employ facial recognition technology.
“If the mayor thinks there aren’t enough cameras in Times Square, then he’s more out of touch than I realized,” Mr. Cahn said.
“It’s more surveillance theater,” he added. “This is a mayor who doubles down on public relations stunts rather than public safety any chance he gets.”
Major crime on the subways is down 4.5 percent, police officials said.
During the news conference, Mr. Adams posed for pictures with K5, holding up his hand to make a half-heart sign against the robot — which could not complete the heart because it doesn’t have arms.
The K5 can serve as a “physical deterrence,” according to Knightscope. It is weatherproof, travels at a top speed of 3 miles per hour and can provide 360-degree recording in high definition and issue audio messages.
When a button is pressed to call for assistance, the robot issues a series of beeps and then says: “This call may be recorded for your safety.” It will connect to the Wi-Fi network in the subway.
Mr. Radlein, 40, who lives in Manhattan and stopped to take a picture of the robot, said he thought it could be useful if it freed up officers to patrol, or was used at stations that have fewer officers than Times Square. Still, he wondered if it was designed to survive New York’s subways.
“I’d be worried if someone pushed it off the platform,” he said. “Does it have brakes to stop itself?”