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Taser maker offers electric-shock drones to stop school shootings

For $50,000 annually plus building work, budget-strapped teachers can (maybe) zap gunmen, for the kids

Rick Smith, founder and CEO of body camera and Taser maker Axon, believes he has a way to reduce the risk of school children being shot by people with guns.

No, it doesn't involve reducing access to guns, which Smith dismisses as politically unworkable in the US. Nor does it involve relocating to any of the many countries where school shootings seldom, if ever, occur and – coincidentally – where there are laws that limit access to guns.

Here's a hint – his answer involves Axon.

Smith's proposal involves mounting his company's occasionally lethal Taser [PDF] on drones, based on the premise that remotely operated electric shock drones will do what Uvalde police did not – intervene to stop a gunman (and it's almost always men) from murdering minors with assault rifles and the like.

Cropped handout of Axon drone

Axon's Taser drone concept ... Click to enlarge

In a post published Thursday on the Axon website, Smith points to advances in drone technology and in "non-lethal" energy weapons (they're sometimes lethal) and that the American public can benefit from the synergy between the two.

"Put together, these two technologies may effectively combat mass shootings," Smith speculates. "In brief, non-lethal drones can be installed in schools and other venues and play the same role that sprinklers and other fire suppression tools do for firefighters: Preventing a catastrophic event, or at least mitigating its worst effects."

Smith is aware of how this proposal comes across.

"Of course, I appreciate the risks in such a proposal, and I know it sounds faintly ludicrous to some," he continues. "That’s why we must start with a caveat: we cannot introduce anything like non-lethal drones into schools without rigorous debate and laws that govern their use."

Axon, however, has skipped ahead of the rigorous debate phase and announced "it has formally begun development of a non-lethal, remotely-operated TASER drone system as part of a long-term plan to stop mass shootings, and reaffirmed it is committed to public engagement and dialogue during the development process."

"Today, the only viable response to a mass shooter is another person with a gun," said Rick Smith in a statement. "In the aftermath of these events, we get stuck in fruitless debates. We need new and better solutions. For this reason, we have elected to publicly engage communities and stakeholders, and develop a remotely operated, non-lethal drone system that we believe will be a more effective, immediate, humane, and ethical option to protect innocent people."

Smith acknowledges the need for rigorous debate while dismissing debate as "fruitless." While those who care to chatter, Axon is moving ahead.

EFF policy analyst Matthew Guariglia published a response to the Axon proposal. He objects to the idea not for being ludicrous but for promoting the proliferation of armed drones.

"For many many reasons, this is a dangerous idea," said Guariglia. "Armed drones would mission-creep their way into more every-day policing. We must oppose a process of normalizing the arming of drones and robots."

Doing so, Guariglia argues, leads to mission creep, as technologies intended for occasional law enforcement use get applied to more and more situations. He points to the way cellular tower simulators ("Stingrays"), which were designed for use in foreign battlefields, have come to be used for minor law violations, and the way Amazon Ring doorbell cameras have broadened police access to surveillance video.

Armed drones would mission-creep their way into more every-day policing. We must oppose a process of normalizing the arming of drones and robots

In a statement issued on Thursday, the Axon AI Ethics Advisory Board said the idea of a Taser-equipped drone was brought to the board a year ago, was considered, and was ultimately voted down.

"Axon's decision to announce publicly that it is proceeding with the development of Taser-equipped drones and robots to be embedded in schools, and operated by someone other than police, gives us considerable pause," the advisory board said. "Reasonable minds can differ on the merits of police-controlled Taser-equipped drones – our own Board disagreed internally – but we unanimously are concerned with the process Axon has employed regarding this idea of drones in school classrooms."

Smith however dismissed the concerns of Axon's AI Ethics Advisory Board – upon which EFF's Surveillance Litigation Director Jennifer Lynch serves – as readily as he brushed off the need for debate.

He responded on Twitter to the board's scolding by calling for a broader discussion – perhaps because the internal discussion by the board did not return the result he wanted.

"I understand and agree with the board’s concerns; there are many questions we will need to answer to ensure these systems are designed for maximum safety & with equity in mind," he said. "That’s the exact reason why I decided to go public: to broaden the discussion with many stakeholders."

And so he has engaged with the internet community. Smith on Friday presided over a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) discussion and fielded questions from skeptics while trying to win support for his cause.

Here's a sample:

rraohc: Is your company capitalizing on the emotional reaction to tragedy to attract investors?

Rick_Smith_Axon: Absolutely not. Frankly, there are much easier ways to make money than solving intractable problems like this. We are engaged out of a passionate belief that we can make technology that is safer, more ethical, and more controlled than today’s solution of adding more people with more guns.

EasternLetterhead107: Your drone can't open doors. How's it going to help in a school shooting?

Rick_Smith_Axon: Great question! One approach would be to have drones in each key area, like smoke detectors. That would require mass production to get very low costs. Another approach would be to put them in key areas like hallways. A low cost approach could be to have simple, low cost vents that could be easily installed above doors or in the wall near the ceiling. This would allow a drone to move seamlessly between rooms where a person cannot move because of locked doors. This will raise some fire code issues (smoke ventilation related). It’s a challenge, but feels like there will be some solutions.

From a cost perspective, I feel like we could deploy a drone with monitoring services for something like $1,000 per year per drone (of course, super rough estimate). So, for $50,000 per year we could provide pretty large area coverage. And that’s less than the cost of one armed guard – and it has the other advantages we will get into as we progress today.

Smith went on to answer further questions, undeterred by those unconvinced by his arguments.

WonderWall_E: I can't think of anything more psychologically damaging than a ceiling mounted taser drone in every classroom. All it takes is a glance upward for a reminder that the only response to the slaughter of children in schools is a ghoulish cash grab by weapons manufacturers like you.

Axon Enterprises stock was down about 1.4 percent on Friday. ®

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