ROBOCOPP looks harmless—it’s a light blue piece of plastic on a string, with an analog robot sketched on the front—but it’s structured like an electronic grenade; if you pull its head off it screams as loudly as an ambulance. That’s both the personal security device’s only feature and its entire point.
The Oakland-based ROBOCOPP team is betting on the virtues of simplicity as they work to market the product. Only four months into development, the team is wee, or nimble, depending on your perspective: Sam Mansen leads on the tech and product design, Jill Turner runs marketing, and Shitai Li manages their manufacturing from Singapore. Looking out at the other entrepreneurs in their Jack London Square co-working space, uniformly heads-down earphones-in, Turner says, “Being at a startup is a lot like being a struggling actor where you’re working 12-hour-days and not really making any money.”
Mansen continues: “A few of us will make it, but the rest you’ll never hear about.”
ROBOCOPP is a wearable alarm intended to keep its user safe by driving off would-be attackers, as well as alerting those nearby that the user is in danger. The product, which is shaped like a thumb drive and comes on a cord, can be looped around a wrist, attached to a keychain, or kept in a pocket. The robot image on the product is meant to convey a sense of companionship.
“The only really effective deterrent that everybody points to alarms,” Mansen says, referring to a 2012 study from the University of North Carolina which shows that house alarms are the fourth most effective burglary deterrents, only ranked below seeing a police officer nearby or hearing sounds from within the home. “ROBOCOPP’s concept came from the question: Why not apply that in a wearable sense?”
The ROBOCOPP team has sold a few hundred units so far. They’ve put a sample dozen of the devices in two Berkeley stores, are building out their Amazon presence, and were recently cleared to be a retailer on the Home Depot site after a three-month wait. Eventually, they’d like to get into major brick and mortar stores.
Officer Wade MacAdams, the Crime Prevention Officer of the Berkeley campus police department, says that the personal alarm is “better than nothing,” but shouldn’t be the core tool a civilian depends upon. “Consider doing some sort of comparison to car alarms,” he says. “Who responds to a car alarm? Nobody.” He says that, just as stairwell emergency alarms and car alarms go widely ignored, the odds of neighbors responding to a personal alarm are small. It may, however, “make your suspect think twice, or throw them off their game, to give you an opportunity to overcome resistance or escape. That’s an advantage. But then you need to think about that next step,” MacAdams says.
Before co-founding ROBOCOPP, Mansen worked as a Range Operations Commander in the Air Force. Mansen’s sister, a UC Berkeley undergraduate, had told him that the Bay Area was dangerous, and the environment changed quickly from block to block. Ever since he’d returned from a yearlong stint working with GPS technology in Qatar, personal security had been on Mansen’s mind. He filed his “paperwork to separate” from the Air Force in June, 2014, and ten months later received clearance to leave the Vandenberg base, about an hour north of Santa Barbara. He and Li are currently working to put a GPS chip in the next incarnation of the device, which will summon a private security company to the user’s exact location. (They’re still sorting the details).
ROBOCOPP is entering a well-saturated market; Vigilant Personal Protection Systems, Sabre and GE make similar models, at cheaper prices (ROBOCOPP sells for $27.99, more than four times the price of the GE alarm). These models look like garage door or remote car openers, and come in white, black, or pink. “For a lot of people, aesthetics are huge,” Mansen says. “Our cost is a little bit higher, but it’s worth a few extra bucks to know that there’s a five-year warranty and it’s the lightest and smallest out there.”
While Mansen takes pains to distance the company from the 1987 cyborg film of the same name, he believes their attention to branding has resonated with consumers. “When we were tabling at Berkeley, 90 percent of people walking by would say ‘cute robot,’” he says. “A group of student tourists from Japan took a picture of the logo blown up before getting on their bus.” After rounds of professional graphic designer proofs—robots smiling, robots with “glowing eyes with lights inside, kind of like Ironman,” one leaning sideways, one with a narrower face—the ROBOCOPP team has stuck with the original stick-figure version Mansen made in Photoshop. “We wanted to focus on commuting with confidence,” he says. “Now we had this device with a friendly robot rather than the idea of ‘Don’t get raped, don’t get assaulted.’”
The team has found a contingent of devoted fans since their August product launch. Catherine Cascillo, a realtor in Brentwood, uses her ROBOCOPP when she takes strangers on house viewings or when running in her neighborhood. “I have pepper spray, but I’ve never used it,” she says. “If the wind comes, it can blow in your eyes. Sometimes if you’re being attacked, you don’t have time to go to your phone—a large device. What are you going to do there?”
Mansen says that exactly half of their buyers are men, and that men place fewer orders but order more units at a time. Many use them for protection against bears while hiking (“acoustic animal repellant,” in the parlance), or order a ROBOCOPP for each member of their families.
Mansen and Turner agree that personal security is difficult to market because people often don’t go looking for solutions until they have already been the victims of a crime. MacAdams says the most important things Bay Area natives can carry around are “their brains.” He advises pedestrians to “keep your head on a swivel and look around. We’re all creatures of habit thinking ‘What am I going to make for dinner? I’ve got to get home for American Idol.’ And meanwhile they’re unaware they just passed three emergency phones.”
Mansen agrees that ROBOCOPP is not a cure-all, nor are devices like pepper spray and apps totally ineffective; he frequently states that “no layer of security is bad security.”
This fall, the ROBOCOPP team is focused on outreach. “To get a spot on any retailer’s shelf you have to knock on a lot of doors. It’s a matter of persistence. We take a day a week to walk around door to door, and we try to focus on the mom and pop shots. They’re a lot easier to get into and if our product doesn’t sell, they just won’t take more,” Mansen says.
They’re also planning on arming a small community in West Oakland with ROBOCOPPs and doing user testing on the GPS model there. “You can do so many things with a smart watch and people are only using it to count their steps,” Turner says. “Bless the nerds—give me cool stuff, please—but they’re all searching for ways to make their product something you actually need. For the first time, wearables can help make a big dent in violent crime using technology.”