July 6, 2022

Axon plan for taser drone met with pushback, adding to debate around drones as weapons


Axon, a tech and weapons producer most famous for its initial product, the Taser, launched a plan to build a taser drone. As part of Axon’s announcement, the company said it intended for its taser-equipped drones to be used for real-time surveillance to stop mass shootings. The news in some ways felt timely coming this week, which was not long after a string of major mass shootings including those at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York and at a school in Uvalde, Texas. But perhaps it was also inopportune timing, as Axon quickly shifted directions and put a pause on those plans after major pushback.

A significant portion of that pushback around the taser drone came from the company’s own ethics board, upon which nine members of the Axon AI Ethics Board said they would resign in light of the product launch announcement.

“We all feel the desperate need to do something to address our epidemic of mass shootings,” a statement released by the departing Board members. “But Axon’s proposal to elevate a tech-and-policing response when there are far less harmful alternatives, is not the solution.”

The drone announced by Axon CEO and founder Rick Smith on June 2 promised to be a non-lethal weapon. Smith’s outline suggested it would be installed in schools and other venues that — if necessary — would fire a weapon to incapacitate the shooter. Board members noted that the taser drone also would rely on pervasive real-time surveillance.

Axon taser drone
A design model provided by Axon of its Taser drone.

Board members hated the idea. Members of the Axon AI Ethics Board included experts on artificial intelligence, computer science, privacy, law enforcement, civil liberties, and public policy. There were 13 members on the board, and the nine who opted to resign are:

  • Wael Abd-Almageed
  • Miles Brundage
  • Ryan Calo
  • Danielle Citron
  • Rebekah Delsol
  • Barry Friedman
  • Chris Harris
  • Jennifer Lynch
  • Mecole McBride

According to the resigning board members, they were first made aware of the concept of an armed drone more than a year ago.

“At that time, the company proposed offering the drone to police departments as a tool that would remotely disarm a person and avoid a police officer using a firearm, thereby potentially saving a life,” according to a spokesperson at the NYU School of Law Policing Project. “The board expressed deep concerns over how the drone could be misused, escalate the use of force by police, and disproportionately harm overpoliced communities and communities of color. It voted 8-4 to recommend that Axon not proceed with a limited pilot of even this use case.”

The board members stated that Axon decided to go against its “strenuous objections,” instead opting to pursue the project.

The news comes in the wake of a string of mass shootings around the nation. Less than halfway through the year, and the country has already seen at least 246 mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a group that tracks mass shootings.

The news also comes out amidst other key stakeholders in the drone industry coming out against weaponized drones. In April 2022 —— largely in response to news about drones being used in conjunction with the war in Ukraine — DJI issued a strongly worded statement making clear that DJI opposes military use of its products.

We want to reiterate a position we have long held: our products are made to improve people’s lives and benefit the world, and we absolutely deplore any use of our products to cause harm. DJI has only ever made products for civilian use; they are not designed for military applications. Specifically:

  • DJI does not market or sell our products for military use.
  • DJI does not provide after-sales services for products that have been identified as being used for military purposes.
  • DJI has unequivocally opposed attempts to attach weapons to our products.
  • DJI has refused to customize or enable modifications that would enable our products for military use.

DJI also said that it would terminate relationships with any distributors, resellers or business partners who sell DJI products to customers who clearly plan to use them for military purposes, or help modify our products for military use.

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