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Axon halts Taser drone project as majority of ethics board resigns

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Proposed as a solution to mass shootings, critics expressed strong concerns over the potential for misuse in policing

Photo Illustration by Grayson Blackmon / The Verge

After fierce pushback, development is being halted on a Taser-wielding drone proposed as a solution to mass shootings in schools.

On Sunday, Axon, the maker of the Taser stun gun, announced that it was pausing work on its drone-mounted Taser project just days after the idea was presented to the public. The announcement marks the end – at least for now – of a project that was widely seen as unfeasible at best, and at worst, a dystopian extension to an already fatal line of police weaponry.

The Taser drone concept was originally announced by Axon on June 2nd. Just over a week after the Uvalde shooting, CEO Rick Smith tweeted that the company was developing a “remotely operated, non-lethal drone system” and wanted to start discussions on how it could be introduced into schools. But the announcement received an almost universally negative response, with many commentators voicing concern over the ways that armed police drones could be misused.

Axon responded to the criticism by releasing a statement from its AI ethics advisory board; a possibly ill-advised strategy since the statement made clear that the majority of the board had strongly advised Axon not to proceed with the project. In a Reddit AMA session following the announcement, CEO Smith explained that the board could offer guidance to Axon, but would ultimately be overridden in the event that agreement between board and company could not be reached. Smith also noted that the board had cautioned against going public with the drone announcement in the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting but again, had been overruled.

After repeatedly being ignored, it seems that many members of the board became skeptical of their ability to influence the company in a meaningful way. On June 5th, a member of the Axon ethics board informed Reuters that nine of the 12 board members were resigning in protest, an action that the company seemed to confirm in a blog post that acknowledged an unspecified number of board members had “chosen to withdraw.”

The nine board members, including policing and privacy law specialists Barry Friedman, Danielle Citron, and Ryan Calo, said they were caught off guard by Axon’s announcement of the Taser drone. In a statement of resignation published by the NYU School of Law’s Policing Project on June 6th, they wrote that the announcement was “trading off the tragedy of the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings.”

“The Taser-equipped drone ... has no realistic chance of solving the mass shooting problem Axon now is prescribing it for, only distracting society from real solutions to a tragic problem,” the board members said. “We all feel the desperate need to do something to address our epidemic of mass shootings. But Axon’s proposal to elevate a tech-and-policing response when there are far less harmful alternatives, is not the solution.”

It’s tempting to say that convening an ethical advisory board is purely a fig leaf for Axon, but the company has been more responsive to its suggestions in the past. In 2019 Axon reversed the decision to incorporate facial recognition technology into police body cameras, recognizing the ethics board’s “thoughtful and actionable recommendations” on addressing some of the bias inherent in automated face matching.

In this case, Axon seems to have taken the board’s (and the public’s) feedback into account only after criticism reached fever pitch, leading to a humbling reversal of course for the company. Regardless, the decision to halt the project has been welcomed by civil rights groups, including the New York-based Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP).

“I’m glad they’re grounding this proposal for now, but I’m disturbed it ever got off the ground,” said STOP’s executive director Albert Fox Cahn. “Only someone who’s completely lost touch with reality would think that the American people would want these knock-off Terminators in our schools.”