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Tough Robots To Serve Prison Inmates

August 22, 1988

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Rolling robots bearing meals, laundry and mail will become servants to thousands of inmates at Alameda County’s new jail when it opens next year.

Called the ″smart cart″ by county engineers, the boxy, self-propelled metal delivery machine is expected to head off mealtime violence by taking food to prisoners in the 15 buildings instead of the prisoners going to the food.

″The jail layout is such that the sheriff wants to deliver the food instead of taking inmates to a central dining area,″ said Ruel Brown, assistant planner of the new facility.

The board of supervisors of the county east of San Francisco has approved a $4.8 million contract for 18 robots made by Apogee Robotics Inc. of Fort Collins, Colo., a company that already manufactures similar machines for several defense corporations.

The robots, formally known as the automatic-guided vehicle system, stand 17 inches high, two feet wide and six feet long. Each carries about 30 food trays.

At the new jail in Santa Rita, the $250,000 machine, which looks like a squat filing cabinet, will be dispatched from a central area and, guided by two miles of wire embedded in the jail’s floor, will deliver meals to the separate 96-cell housing facilities. They are equipped with sensors which see 12 feet ahead, watching for obstacles.

Alameda is the first jail system in the nation to install the robots, said Jim Jones, president of the manufacturer. The company has produced similar robots used by IBM, Rockwell International and Westinghouse Electric Corp. to deliver supplies, he said.

″It had to be designed so that (prisoners) can’t hide contraband in it,″ Jones said. ″We won’t have a problem with it, unless the staff doesn’t do regular preventative maintenance checks.″

Sheriff’s representatives say they are sure the machines will improve security. There will be no long walks to the kitchen or rowdy mealtime crowds, thanks to the 1,500-pound, stainless-steel robot.

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department plans to find out how tough the machines really are with a test patterned after a television luggage commercial.

A retired sheriff’s captain - armed with confiscated ″implements of destruction,″ including an axe handle and ice pick - will attempt to rough up one of the robots, said Ruel Brown assistant project planner for the jail.

″I’m not sure what he weighs, but he’s a big man,″ Brown said.

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