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The Taser drone may be a creepy fantasy, but the questions it raises are real

The concept faces legal and practical hurdles, and infuriated members of the company’s ethics board, some of whom threatened to resign.

The Taser drone may be a creepy fantasy, but the questions it raises are real
[Photo: Axon]

In the wake of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 dead, many are looking to the tech industry to deliver solutions. But at least one company’s proposal raises more questions than answers.

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Axon, which makes Tasers, body-worn cameras and other technology for law enforcement, announced on Thursday that it plans to mount Tasers on drones, as part of a solution to America’s problem with school shooters.

“This network of cameras, with human and AI monitoring, together with panic buttons and other local communication tools, can detect and ID a threat before a shot is fired and dramatically improve response times and situational awareness,” Axon said in a press release.

The drones would be built by a contractor and would be installed in classrooms so they could launch from a ceiling-mounted device, something like a large smoke detector. When security cameras detect an active shooter in the room, the drone is released from the ceiling to locate and tase the shooter, disabling them. Axon imagines the drones could even operate autonomously.

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But many, if not most, worry that mounting weapons on drones—something U.S. operations already do overseas, itself is a source of controversy—crosses a line.

Axon’s own 14-person ethics board has serious problems with the idea. The board said in a statement of its own that it began discussing the Taser drone concept with Axon management a year ago but had ultimately voted against it, during a meeting last month. But the company had wanted to trial a Taser drone for use by SWAT teams; the idea of putting Taser-mounted drones in schools specifically was never discussed in the first place.

“Axon’s decision to announce publicly that it is proceeding with developing TASER-equipped drones and robots to be embedded in schools, and operated by someone other than police, gives us considerable pause,” the board wrote in its statement, which Axon released on Twitter hours after its initial post. “Reasonable minds can differ on the merits of police-controlled Taser-equipped drones—our own board disagreed internally, but we unanimously are concerned with the process Axon has employed regarding this idea of drones in school classrooms.”

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Barry Friedman, director of NYU’s Policing Project, told Protocol that Axon only informed the ethics board of its idea earlier this week. Since then, several board members have said they are contemplating resigning. “We’re all having conversations about that,” said Friedman.

That didn’t deter Axon founder and CEO Rick Smith, who took to Reddit on Friday afternoon to hype his Taser drone idea. Appearing on a Reddit “AMA,” Smith said that the board had, in fact, been split over the Taser drone idea, but added that police officials generally support it.

Questions for (possibly autonomous) Taser-armed drones

This isn’t Smith’s first brush with controversy. In 2016, he described to Fast Company his vision of equipping the company’s body cameras with real-time face-recognition capabilities so that a police officer could instantly identify a suspect. But that idea has been put on hold, as the company’s board voted to postpone the use of face recognition technology for now, citing concerns over privacy, accuracy, and safety. (It has, however, proceeded with license plate recognition software for use with in-car cameras, despite concerns from the ethics board.)

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Axon’s ethics board had similar worries about the drone idea, particularly around safety and privacy. (Though the company markets them as “nonlethal” or “less than lethal,” Tasers have been linked with over 1,000 deaths to date.) It’s unclear how well a Taser drone would perform in a classroom situation. For instance, how would a teacher operating a flying Taser fare in combating an active shooter, and what are the risks of missing the target and hitting a student? What if the shooter is completely covered with body armor?

And what happens when the theoretical computer-vision system that triggers the drone registers a false positive? Is the school liable for that? Would Taser drones in classrooms give a false sense of security right up until the time another gunman enters the building? And how would Axon ensure that the technology be used only in active shooter scenarios and not, for instance, against protesters?

In the case of Taser drones, Smith said they should be controlled by “highly trained operators in fairly centralized locations,” with “on site oversight (possibly including legal or civil liberties oversight) at the operations center.” Training will be a challenge (“most cops spend very little time in training after their first year and the vast majority of time on the streets,” he admitted) and communications could be a problem, too. “Fortunately,” he added, “most police agencies use our body cameras and cloud software, so we have a footprint to introduce direct communications capabilities.”

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But in a graphic novel Smith published in 2019, cited in the company’s promotional materials, the CEO describes a Taser drone that operates on its own. A spokesperson for Axon confirmed to Fast Company that the system could be autonomous.

To prevent improper use, Smith says the company could require police agencies “to have a public-facing policy about how they will be used, and with a strong oversight component.” Civil rights advocates have called for similar requirements around the use of body cameras and other police technology, but Axon doesn’t currently make those demands of their police customers.

Smith said the company could also shut off an agency’s drones if it violates the terms of use. “My personal thinking is that we set a threshold that these systems can only be used to actively intervene in an ongoing act of violence, or where there is a high degree of risk of an act of violence,” Smith said on Reddit. “Lots of nuance on how to define, but this is where having a two key system where there’s some legal or admin oversight during a deployment could make big difference.”

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Red flags remain

Axon is trying to do more than just sell more Tasers. It is trying to sell the large-scale use of a weapon for use on civilians. Under normal circumstances, in a free society, this would be an odious idea. Framed as a defense against the murder of children within schools it may sound more palatable.

The problem is, Axon would have no real way to control how law enforcement might use the technology. Schools or law enforcement might start out using the technology for one case but then start using it for other things.

“Time and time again, technologies given to police to use only in the most extreme circumstances make their way onto streets during protests or to respond to petty crime,” wrote the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Matthew Guariglia in a post published hours after Axon’s Taser drone announcement. Guariglia points out that cell-site simulators (often called “Stingrays”) were originally developed for use in battle on foreign soil but eventually were used at home by police for fighting “terrorism.” Police later used them to track undocumented immigrants, and even to bust a man who stole $57 worth of food.

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Many on Twitter worried Thursday night that police might use the Taser drones to terrorize protestors. Others wondered how it would comply with federal and other laws that restrict armed drones. If a law enforcement agency wanted to use the Taser drones outdoors it would need specific approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. An FAA representative tells Fast Company that as long as the drones are used indoors, the agency is unconcerned with them.

The idea of arming a drone with a nonlethal weapon for law enforcement use was probably inevitable. But it recalls the lesson of the Patriot Act: If we approve in haste the use of dangerous technologies in times of duress, we open the door to them being used in ways that erode civil rights in better times.

Despite all the controversy, it’s unlikely a Taser drone becomes a real product anytime soon. In Thursday’s press release, Axon framed the product as being in development, but under questioning from skeptical audience members in the Reddit AMA, Smith seemed to soften his company’s ambitions. “We haven’t launched a product yet,” he said, “we’ve launched a concept. And I want to hear dissent, including from our advisory board.”

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One Reddit questioner wondered if Axon is simply taking advantage of the recent mass shooting events to help sell Tasers; in this case, drone-mounted Tasers.

“Absolutely not,” Smith fired back. “Frankly, there are much easier ways to make money than solving intractable problems like this,” he wrote.

Sure, Smith’s intentions may be entirely pure. He’s long promoted his company’s Taser-based solutions as a way for police to do what they need to do without immediately resorting to deadly force.

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In the end, the whole discussion might garner some attention for Axon while distracting us from a more certain way to stop school shooters: namely, by imposing tighter restrictions on gun sales.

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