Axon halts plans to build Taser-equipped drones for schools

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The flying Taser drones would be pre-installed in school ceilings so an officer could launch one within seconds of a reported shooting, pilot it through special vents in locked classrooms, stun the shooter with shock darts and shout commands like: “Stay down or you will be hit again.

At least that’s the proposition police contracting giant Axon pushed for last week after the Uvalde school massacre. But the company has since halted the project following a massive resignation from its own advisers, who branded it a crackpot dystopian fantasy that could militarize schools and hurt children.

The shock drones, they feared, would stun innocent students or be abused by hackers, vandals or the police. Even if deployed appropriately, they may not be enough to take out a gunman. And the problem at Uvalde, some noted, was not a lack of firepower: 19 officers had waited outside the classroom door for 47 minutes, mistakenly believing the children inside were dead.

“It’s obviously a bad idea to use them in the context of schools. I mean, it’s nonsense,” said Ryan Calo, one of nine members of Axon’s artificial intelligence ethics advisory board who resigned in protest at the company’s pursuit of the idea. company. “You can’t deal with these horrible national tragedies…by tasering a drone.”

Critics said the idea shines a light on the security theater that regularly colors the nation’s response to mass shootings, promising an unfounded sense of security, rather than real security, for a tragedy unfolding in the United States far more often than anywhere else on earth.

Instead of focusing on guns, they claim, the companies have pushed lawmakers to focus everywhere else, selling bulletproof backpacks, school surveillance software, facial recognition scanners and other devices. other systems which they say are reactive, problematic and ineffective in stopping future killings.

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Axon, which makes a variety of Tasers under the general heading of “energy weapons,” declined to make executives available for an interview. Rick Smith, its founder and leader, said in a statement on Sunday that the project’s response had “provided us with a deeper appreciation of the complex and important considerations” relating to shock drones in schools and added: “I recognize that our passion for finding new solutions to stop mass shootings led us to act quickly to share our ideas.

Although he previously suggested the system could be operational in two years, he said in the statement that the idea was still “long-range” and that the company still needed to research whether these drones were “even viable.”

Smith added that it was “unfortunate” that board members resigned before the company “had a chance to answer their technical questions” and would continue to “seek diverse perspectives.” to advise them on other technological ideas.

But in a statement on Monday, the resigning board members argued the drone had “no realistic chance of solving the mass shooting problem Axon now prescribes it for, only distracting society from the real solution”.

“Prior to Axon’s announcement, we begged the company to step down,” the members said. “But society has moved forward in a way that has struck many of us as we trade on the tragedy of the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings. … [It] is more than any of us can bear.

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Axon has become one of the largest law enforcement companies in the United States through its sale of body-worn cameras and Taser weapons, which fire electroshock spikes that can stun a person into submission.

Axon advertises that Tasers are “less deadly”, although a USA Today investigation last year found that more than 500 people had died shortly after being shocked. Police looking for pistol-shaped weapons have also mistakenly drawn their handguns, including in the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright last year.

The company convened its AI ethics committee in 2018 as it considered and ultimately refused to enable facial recognition on its body cameras, which critics say could lead to dangerous misidentifications or automated surveillance of demonstrations or other public events. “We don’t want to create an Orwellian state just to make money,” Smith said in an interview with The Washington Post at the time.

The opinion of the board of directors is not binding and the company is free to ignore it. But its independent mix of paid technical and legal experts believes it has had productive discussions over the years with Axon as the company researched license plate scanners and other monitoring tools, said Calo, a professor at the University of Washington which researches technology and law.

About a year ago, Axon asked the board if shock drones could be ethically deployed in a scenario where officers needed remote strike capabilities and feared for their lives. After deliberating, the board said in a statement that the company would need to implement a series of safeguards to make the very idea “remotely plausible”.

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The board voted last month that the company should not go ahead with the idea, arguing that armed drones could increase the frequency with which police use force “in communities on -policed ​​and communities of color”. The members were preparing a full report, due for release this fall, on whether the project should be marketed to the police.

Members were therefore surprised when Smith on Thursday announcement that the company was “officially beginning development” of a shock drone that could be used in a much broader role, to “stop” school shootings, with promises to “neutralize the threat in less than 60 seconds “.

In a video ad Showing slow-motion footage of a drone firing a dart, Smith said the company had already built test systems and begun the design phase of a system that he said would take about two years to come to fruition. In concept renders released by the company, the quadcopter drone is shown as having four cameras, a dart-firing cannon, a speaker, and a “precision laser.”

“I’m done waiting for politicians to fix the problem. So we’re going to fix it,” Smith said. “We are going to do it.”

Smith promoted the idea for years, even including it in a graphic novel, “The End of Killing,” which shows a drone zapping a rampaging gunman at a daycare center. And during a Q&A session on Reddit the day after the announcement, Smith said he knew the idea might “sound crazy” but offered some advantages over the “solution of today” to respond to the shootings: “a local person with a gun.”

License plate scanners were supposed to bring peace of mind. Instead, they tore up the neighborhood.

The shock drones, he said, would be installed in ceiling-mounted “launch stations”, like smoke detectors, and would be shielded to prevent “kids from throwing stuff at them”. Schools, he said, could install “simple, inexpensive vents” above doors to allow drones to fly in locked rooms, although he also acknowledged the idea might raise “some fire code issues” due to smoke ventilation.

The drones could fire a payload of up to four shock probes over 40ft, he said, and deliver a sustained electrical current to incapacitate an attacker long enough for nearby people to kill or take him. their weapon. The drones would be small and difficult to fire, he wrote, and “after we ran out of darts, we might ram the drone into someone to physically distract them.”

Schools or police departments, he said, would pay an estimated fee of around $1,000 a year per drone, and the company would only sell them in markets where “they would not be misused.” .

In 2018, the Federal Aviation Administration banned anyone from flying a drone with a dangerous weapon attached. But Smith said such “legal limitations” could be worked out over time; Tasers and body cameras, he noted, were also illegal in some states before Axon began marketing them.

The company has “a long history of working in situations where the laws didn’t support our technology — and did when people understood what we were trying to do,” he wrote.

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During the Reddit session, Smith was asked how he would handle the pushback from parents not wanting flying shock machines near their children. “Many parents would probably find this situation more comfortable than an armed guard stationed at school,” he said.

But the response on Reddit was searing. Some commentators worried that drones could be misused to punish students, disrupt fights or police protests, or lead to unintended consequences, such as more people getting shot after the shooter was shot. shocked.

Others wondered if Axon was capitalizing on the emotion of the moment to attract investors or sell a product. They also said the proposal was a sad commentary on America’s weak response to a national crisis.

“The fact that we are thinking about drones in schools, whether the motivation is capitalism, parental instinct or both, means that our society is sick enough already,” wrote one commenter. Another wrote: ‘We really like to treat the symptoms rather than the root causes don’t we.

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