Axon begins Taser drone development amid backlash from ethics advisory board

axon taser stun gun drone

Axon, the company that invented Taser stun guns, says it has “formally” begun the development of a Taser drone to address America’s chronic gun violence problem. The concept, which has been voted firmly against by the company’s own Al Ethics Advisory Board, has resulted in immediate backlash and contempt from social media users.

Axon says Taser drones, which fire a pair of barbed darts that deliver a paralyzing electrical charge, will play a key role in the company’s long-term plan to detect and stop mass shootings in less than 60 seconds. The idea has been brewing internally for a while now. The first time Axon CEO and founder Rick Smith described such a system in detail was in his 2019 book The End of Killing.

Smith says he wants Taser drones to be installed in schools and other public venues to play the same role that sprinklers and other fire suppression tools do for firefighters: Prevent a catastrophic event, or at least mitigate its worst effects.

“Of course, I appreciate the risks in such a proposal, and I know it sounds faintly ludicrous to some,” Smith says. “That’s why we must start with a caveat: We cannot introduce anything like non-lethal drones into schools without rigorous debate and laws that govern their use.”

Tainted history of Tasers

Before we get to the legal framework that Smith is proposing to avoid the misuse of Taser drones, it’s worth pointing out that “non-lethal” may not be the most accurate description of an energy weapon that, according to media investigations, has led to hundreds of deaths.

In 2019, Reuters reported it had documented at least 1,081 deaths following the use of Tasers in the US – almost all since the weapons began coming into widespread use in the early 2000s. In many of those cases, the Taser was combined with other force, such as hand strikes or restraint holds.

A more recent USA Today investigation into police use of Tasers reveals that four of five cases that ended in death began as calls for nonviolent incidents, and 84% were unarmed. In cases where race could be determined, Black people accounted for nearly 40% of those killed, about three times their share of the US population.

Three Laws of First Responder Drones

Smith, meanwhile, is convinced that the “Three Laws of First Responder Drones” established by him can act as an ethical and legal framework to safeguard Taser drone systems. Here’s what he’s proposing:

  1. Humans must own decisions and remain accountable: Robots must be controlled by authenticated human operators who accept legal and moral responsibility for any decision that impacts a human subject.
  2. Drones should be used to save lives, not take them: Operators of drones who are not in immediate danger are duty bound to de-escalate whenever possible and deploy the minimal force necessary. Only non-deadly force should be used.
  3. Agencies must provide rigorous oversight and transparency to ensure acceptable use: Institutions operating robots capable of deploying force must develop publicly available policies describing in advance the types of circumstances in which robots should be deployed. Every incident of force deployed from a robotic system shall be recorded with audio-video and operational data to be reviewed by an oversight committee.

AI Ethics Advisory Board’s statement

Axon’s own AI Ethics Advisory Board deliberated this framework at length for a year before asking the company to put a complete stop to the idea last month. This is why after Axon publicly announced the development of Taser drones, the Board was forced to put out a statement, calling the company’s actions “deeply regrettable.” Here are some excerpts from that statement:

With Axon’s acquiescence, the Ethics Board decided to consider only a limited pilot of a TASER-equipped drone, to be used only by the police. The Board had extensive discussions with Axon about the potential beneficial uses of such a technology. The Board also considered the potential social costs, including serious concerns around Taser misuse and the possibility that the deployment of weaponized drones and robots could increase the rate at which force is used, especially in over-policed communities and communities of color. The Ethics Board worked carefully to identify all the necessary safeguards that would need to be in place even to make such a limited pilot remotely plausible.

Having done this work, and deliberated at length, a majority of the Ethics Board last month ultimately voted against Axon moving forward, even on those limited terms.

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. It is a notable expansion of what the Board discussed at length.

Axon’s announcement came before the company even began to find workable solutions to address many of the Board’s already-stated concerns about the far more limited pilot we considered, and before any opportunity to consider the impact this technology will have on communities. Now, Axon has announced it would not limit the technology to policing agencies, but would make it more widely available. And the surveillance aspect of this proposal is wholly new to us.

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.

It should be highlighted here that the role of this Ethics Board at Axon is purely advisory. While the company has listened to the Board’s counsel in the past, it is not obliged to do so. Axon is now asking the Board to reconsider its decision since it was taken before the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde.

Public backlash against Axon’s Taser drone concept

But Axon’s Advisory Board is not alone in its opposition to the concept of Taser drones. As Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization, points out in its editorial:

If the police get their hands on taser drones, they will not sit in a warehouse until the next emergency mass shooting situation. History has proven this. We will see them flying over protests and shopping districts. We will hear news stories about police using a drone to tase someone for vandalism, petty theft, or fleeing the drone. It will not be a matter of if, but when.

Romeo Durscher, who oversaw public safety at DJI before making the switch to Auterion, says the Taser drone is an idea that had come up in discussions with Axon more than five years ago. Durscher feels as uneasy about the concept now as he had then. Here’s Durscher:

In 2016, a robot delivered an explosive device in Dallas to neutralize a threat. What once was used to help defuse an explosive device, now became the carrier of an explosive device. Those events changed the way mobile robotics were used and thought of, not only outside of theater (war zones), but in everyday urban areas. It raised ethical questions which needed to be discussed. Have we come to a conclusion? I don’t think we have.

Even weaponizing a small drone with non-lethal solutions feels like a signal or step into more acceptance of this being OK, when, of course, the underlying issue is the craziness of mass shooting events across the US.

The FAA, however, is yet to comment on Axon’s proposal. While it is illegal for the “general public” to operate a drone with a dangerous weapon attached, the agency will probably have special authorizations for Taser drones if such a system ever comes to pass.

Reddit AMA on Taser drones

Axon says it is collaborating with a variety of drone hardware providers and will make a selection later this year on the final development partner(s). Functional proof of concept will be available in 2023 with a full solution ready in 2024.

The company is committing to listening to people’s concerns and feedback though, beginning with CEO Rick Smith hosting a Reddit AMA on Friday, June 3 at 1 p.m. EST. See you there.

Read more: North Dakota to test 6 new BVLOS drone cases this summer

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