Incident 252: Remotely Operated Taser-Armed Drones Proposed by Taser Manufacturer as Defense for School Shootings in the US

Description: Axon Enterprise considered development of remotely operated drones capable of tasering at a target a short distance away as a defense mechanism for mass shootings, despite its internal AI ethics board’s previous objection and condemnation as dangerous and fantastical.
Alleged: Axon Enterprise developed an AI system deployed by none, which harmed US schools and US students.

Suggested citation format

Pednekar, Sonali. (2022-06-01) Incident Number 252. in Lam, K. (ed.) Artificial Intelligence Incident Database. Responsible AI Collaborative.

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Key points:

  • The company surprised its own ethics board by announcing the proposal to have taser-armed drones in schools
  • The chief executive said he was disappointed board members resigned before discussing their objections
  • The ethics board said it had already voted against a proposal for a taser-armed police drone

Taser maker Axon Enterprise says it is halting work on a project to equip drones with stun guns to combat mass shootings, a prospect one member of its AI ethics board said was prompting a mass exodus from the panel.

The May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas that killed 21 prompted an announcement by Axon last week that it was working on a drone that could be operated remotely by first responders to fire a taser at a target up to 12 metres away.

It said the drones could fly in schools and "help prevent the next Uvalde, Sandy Hook, or Columbine".

However, the company's ethics board objected strongly to the project, releasing a statement calling the idea a "notable expansion" on plans it had already voted against. 

Ethics board member Wael Abd-Almageed told Reuters on Sunday he and eight colleagues were resigning from the 12-member panel, in a rare public rebuke by one of the watchdog groups that some companies have set up in recent years.

Later, founder and chief executive Rick Smith announced the project was on hold.

"In light of feedback, we are pausing work on this project and refocusing to further engage with key constituencies to fully explore the best path forward," he said in a statement.

He said it was unfortunate that some members of the ethics advisory panel had "chosen to withdraw from directly engaging on these issues before we heard or had a chance to address their technical questions".

Police were criticised for not responding quickly enough when a gunman entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.(AP: William Luther/The San Antonio Express-News)

Uvalde shooting prompted public announcement

Axon, which developed the taser and sells them alongside police body cameras, floated the idea of a new police drone product last year to its artificial intelligence ethics board, a group of well-respected experts in technology, policing and privacy.

Some of them expressed reservations about weaponising drones in over-policed communities of colour.

But they were not expecting Axon's announcement last Thursday that it wanted to send those taser-equipped drones into classrooms to prevent mass shootings by immobilising an intruding gunman.

In an interview with The Associated Press at the time, Mr Smith said he felt compelled to make the idea public after the mass shooting in Uvalde, saying he was "catastrophically disappointed" in the response by police who did not move in to kill the suspect for more than an hour.

He also called plans to arm teachers "misguided" and said he wanted to field a "far broader array of voices".

But he stressed on Friday that no product had been launched and any potential launch would be down the road.

The idea, he felt, needed to be shared because of the public conversation about effective ways for police to safely confront attackers and how schools could increase safety.

"This is an idea that should get into the public's consciousness while our minds are open to it and I felt if I wait another six months, the world is going to change and people are going to forget this pain and we're going to see a shift in sentiments where people are going to focus a lot more on what could go wrong, rather than the pain of this problem we need to solve," he said.

Axon's stock price rose with the news but the announcement angered members of the ethics board.

"This particular idea is crackpot," said Barry Friedman, a New York University law professor.

"Drones can't fly through closed doors. The physical properties of the universe still hold. So unless you have a drone in every single classroom in America, which seems insane, the idea just isn't going to work."

Professor Friedman said it was a "dangerous and fantastical idea" that went far beyond the proposal for a taser-equipped police drone that board members — some of them former or current police officials — had been debating in recent months.

"We begged the company not to do it," Professor Friedman said of the company's announcement.

"It was unnecessary and shameful."

The product idea had been kicked around at Axon since at least 2019 and the company had been working to try to figure out whether a drone with a taser was even a feasible idea.

Over the last year, the company created computer-generated art renderings to mock up a product design and it conducted an internal test to see if taser darts — which transmit an immobilising electric jolt — could be fired from a flying drone, Mr Smith said.

He added that he had discussed the possibility of developing such a product with the ethics board.

Board members who spoke with The Associated Press said they were taken aback by the school drone proposal — which they got notice of only earlier last week — and cobbled together a unanimous statement of concern that described Axon's decision as "deeply regrettable".

The company tweeted out the board's dissent shortly after its own announcement on Thursday.

Some board members expected resignations, with law professor Ryan Calo saying he "wouldn't be surprised".

"I think everyone on the board has to make a choice about whether they want to stay involved," he said.

Professors Friedman and Calo both described last week's process as a sharp turnaround from the respectful relationship that Axon executives had with the board in recent years on controversial topics such as face recognition — which Axon decided against using in its body cameras — and automated licence plate readers.

"Sometimes the company takes our advice and sometimes it doesn't," Professor Friedman said.

"What's important is that happens after thoughtful discussion and coordination. That was thrown out the window here."

Last week, Mr Smith said the company was still in the very early phases of product development and would continue to consult the ethics board, along with law enforcement officials, community leaders and school officials.

He acknowledged at the time that the company might later decide the idea was not feasible and abandon it, but said he had not ignored the board, which was meant to provide guidance.

On Friday in an "Ask Me Anything" chat on the online forum Reddit, Mr Smith acknowledged that "drones in schools can sound nuts" but went on to answer detailed questions about them.

They could travel through school vents, he said, and perch on doors and walls near ceilings.

He said it could be a "good thing" if a gunman tried to shoot one down because it would distract them from trying to kill people.

Taser manufacturer drops proposal to put armed drones in schools after mass resignation from ethics board