Axon CEO and founder Rick Smith says he’s “pausing work” on the infamous Taser drone project until his company has had a chance to “fully explore the best path forward.” The announcement comes as nine of the 12 members who sit on Axon’s Al Ethics Advisory Board send in their resignations to protest the project.
The plan to equip drones with Taser stun guns was unveiled by Smith last week when he proposed to install these systems in schools and other public venues to deter mass shooting incidents.
“Today, the only viable response to a mass shooter is another person with a gun,” Smith said. “In the aftermath of these events, we get stuck in fruitless debates. We need new and better solutions. For this reason, we have elected to publicly engage communities and stakeholders, and develop a remotely operated, non-lethal drone system that we believe will be a more effective, immediate, humane, and ethical option to protect innocent people.”
The public backlash against the idea was swift and strong. But the most surprising part was the revelation that Axon’s ethics board had shot down the Taser drone idea weeks ago after deliberating over it for almost a year.
Following a press release by Axon detailing how Taser drones might work, the board was forced to put out an independent, no-holds-barred statement distancing itself from the project.
Among other things, the board noted that Axon had publically announced the project without bothering to find solutions to the many concerns that the board had already put forward before the company. Further, Axon wanted to make the technology widely available without considering the impact it may have on over-policed communities and communities of color.
On Sunday, ethics board member Wael Abd-Almageed told Reuters he and eight colleagues were resigning from the 12-member panel.
The announcement to halt the development of Taser drones came shortly after this, with Smith stressing:
Making the world a safer place is a big task, and there are complicated issues we need to address. It is unfortunate that some members of Axon’s ethics advisory panel have chosen to withdraw from directly engaging on these issues before we heard or had a chance to address their technical questions. We respect their choice and will continue to seek diverse perspectives to challenge our thinking and help guide other technology options that we should be considering.
In the meantime, the CEO had acknowledged the legal limitations and uncertainties around the project while taking questions from the public during a Reddit Ask Me Anything session Friday. Commenting on the cost of a Taser drone system, Smith said schools would need to fork out around $1,000 annually per system, “which could put 50-100 units in a facility for the cost of one armed guard or police officer.”