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Taser-equipped drones in the works to stop school shootings — despite ethics concerns

A police drone carries 95-1 assault rifle in a drill on January 9, 2022 in Zhoushan, Zhejiang Province of China. Zou Xunyong/Getty Images

Axon, the maker of Taser brand stun guns, announced Thursday that they have begun developing weaponized drones that can be deployed to stop mass shooters. Mere hours later, Axon’s own ethics board made a public statement condemning the project.

Axon’s plan to develop “a non-lethal, remotely-operated TASER drone system” comes on the heels of a number of deadly mass shooting events that have rocked the United States in recent weeks, including a school shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 students and two teachers dead.

“Today, the only viable response to a mass shooter is another person with a gun,” Axon CEO and founder Rick Smith wrote in the announcement. “In the aftermath of these events, we get stuck in fruitless debates. We need new and better solutions.”

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“Now is the time to make this technology a reality — and to begin a robust public discussion around how to ethically introduce non-lethal drones into schools,” Smith continued.

Axon proposes to use a system of cameras and sensors to detect shooters. First responders would then pilot the drones with the aim of “incapacitating an active shooter in less than 60 seconds.”

Click to play video: 'Sorrow, anger grows as funerals set to begin for Uvalde school shooting victims' Sorrow, anger grows as funerals set to begin for Uvalde school shooting victims
Sorrow, anger grows as funerals set to begin for Uvalde school shooting victims – May 30, 2022

But not everyone at Axon was in agreement on this decision, as evidenced by an Axon ethics board statement that came out just hours after the new drone system was announced, saying that the new project gives them “considerable pause.”

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The ethics board wrote that Axon came to them a year ago with the idea for Taser-equipped drones, but the project was much more limited and would have only been used by police.

“A majority of the ethics board last month ultimately voted against Axon moving forward, even on those limited terms,” wrote the board. “Now, Axon has announced it would not limit the technology to policing agencies, but would make it more widely available. And the surveillance aspect of this proposal is wholly new to us.”

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“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.”

In response to this pushback from the ethics board, Smith tweeted that he agrees with their concerns, writing “there are many questions we will need to answer to ensure these systems are designed for maximum safety & with equity in mind. That’s the exact reason why I decided to go public: to broaden the discussion with many stakeholders.”

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The ethics board is advisory, so Axon isn’t beholden to their recommendations. Its members include privacy advocates, former police chiefs, civil rights advocates and computer scientists.

Three years ago, however, Axon decided not to add a facial recognition feature to police body cameras after a report from the ethics board.

Danielle Citron, a member of the ethics board and a University of Virginia law professor, told NBC News there is a likelihood that some or all of the ethics board members will resign due to the weaponized drone project.

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“There’s a lot of disappointment, but a lot of us don’t want to be hasty and lose the chance to have an influence,” she said. “If we all resign, then who’s there?”

Axon has long factored in to public debates about police and surveillance equipment.

In 2017, Reuters found that more than 1,000 people in the U.S. had died after being stunned with Tasers. The stun gun itself was ruled as the cause of death or a contributing factor in 153 deaths.

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