Axon Wants To Make Taser Drones for Schools Despite Its Own Ethics Board’s Concerns
Axon, the police technology company best known for selling stun guns and police body cameras, has announced its latest project in the wake of a series of deadly mass shootings: a drone equipped with a stun gun and a surveillance system.
In a press release, the company stated that the system is “part of a long-term plan to stop mass shootings,” and claimed that it would be capable of incapacitating an active shooter in 60 seconds.
“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 wrote in the release.
The company’s announcement links to a disturbing graphic novel written in 2019 by Axon CEO and founder Rick Smith, which takes place in the year 2029 and depicts a man named Randolph walking into a day care center armed with an AK-47 rifle. After Randolph shoots out the building’s glass windows, an AI-powered gunshot detection system automatically activates a quadcopter drone equipped with a taser, and takes the assailant down. The comic goes on to state that "killing is a technology problem. We Kill because we don’t have the right technology to stop a threat without taking a life."
“Now is the time to make this technology a reality,” Smith wrote in reference to his novel, “and to begin a robust public discussion around how to ethically introduce non-lethal drones into schools.”
Axon’s own ethics advisory board, however, disagrees. “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. “It is a notable expansion of what the Board discussed at length…And the surveillance aspect of this proposal is wholly new to us.” Weaponized drones and robots could increase the rate of force used in communities of color, according to the board.
Smith told Motherboard that he was “proud” that the ethics advisory board disagreed with his decision to move ahead with the taser drone.
“If you’re a police equipment company and you form an ethics advisory board of privacy advocates and police accountability folks, people that are critical of police, if they agreed with us 100 percent of the time it’d be I think it’d be pretty questionable,” Smith said.
However, Smith said, after the shooting in Uvalde, Smith and other people within Axon who were previously opposed to the taser drone decided to move ahead with it.
“Listening to the debate, I remembered Sandy Hook. And what happens after these things, there’s anger, there’s outburst. And then a month later, nothing happens.” Smith went on to say that he wanted to release the drone concept into the public before the shooting moved on from peoples’ minds, in order to “start the debate” about the technology.
Taser drones are the latest example of the tech industry promising dystopian tech-based solutions to problems that are systemic and complicated. After the Ferguson uprising in 2014, Axon made millions selling body cameras and stun guns which the company pitches as technology that offers police transparency and “non-lethal” solutions. Wrap Technologies, founded by a co-founder of Axon, pushed the high-tech lasso Bolawrap weapon following the George Floyd uprising.
Despite these lofty promises, police haven’t stopped killing. Officers shot and killed more people in 2021 than they did annually during the past five years. And according to recent studies, body camera footage is disproportionately used to prosecute citizens, not police officers.
Research also shows that police presence in schools does not reduce gun violence. Schools are police-free in most countries, yet incidents of mass shootings are relatively rare. A Washington Post analysis found that gun violence occurred in at least 68 schools that employed a police officer or security guard between April 1999 and March 2018. In all but a few cases, the shooting happened quickly, before officers could react. Similarly, in urban communities, police officers do not stop shootings—they arrive at the scene after the fact. Of nearly 200 Post-identified shootings, a school resource officer gunned down an active shooter just once.
Smith and Axon did not make clear how taser-equipped drones would solve these issues—or how they would prevent them from being misused outside of mass shooting scenarios, such as surveilling protesters and patrolling marginalized communities. A list of rules for drones in Axon’s marketing states that first-responder drones should always be human-operated, subject to “rigorous oversight and transparency,” and only employ “minimal, non-lethal force.” But despite Axon’s marketing, there is no evidence that drones could effectively respond to active shooter incidents.
Still, Smith remains focused on attacking the symptoms of the problem in lieu of a political solution.
“If the politicians fix the gun problem, I’ll shelve this thing, and we’ll move on and do other stuff,” Smith said. “But I have fairly low confidence they’re gonna fix the problem. And so this is something that’s within my control. That’s something I can do that I think could make a big difference and is better than the status quo.”
Privacy advocates, meanwhile, are blasting Axon’s proposal as yet another tool that will inevitably be used against students and everyday citizens.
“A world with taser-equipped drones in schools is a world where children are less safe, not more safe,” Evan Greer, the deputy director of Fight For The Future, told Motherboard. “If companies like Axon succeed in selling these dangerous weapons to police or schools, it’s only a matter of time before they will be used on students who are ‘misbehaving,’ to target protesters, or to harm people who are experiencing mental health crises.”
“I can’t believe I have to say this,” she added, “but weaponized drones are not the solution to mass shootings.”