Against school massacres: Axon wanted to develop taser drone

The leading manufacturer of taser devices wants to mount them on quadrocopters in the future. Civil rights organization EFF warns against normalization of arming drones and robots.

After the recent school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, it is unclear whether the United States government will be able to prevent similar acts in the future. Stricter gun laws are failing because of the gun lobby. Even the proposal to equip teachers with rifles, which seems absurd from our point of view, is unlikely to succeed. This would mean that school personnel would also have to be trained with weapons.

The inventor and manufacturer of the taser, of all things, is now promising a remedy to this dilemma. The company Axon announced Thursday that it has „formally“ begun development of a taser drone system. So writes Rick Smith, Axon’s founder and CEO, on the blog of the world’s leading supplier of stun guns. He says the initiative is part of a long-term plan to combat mass shootings.

Police fantasies with pepper spray, tear gas and sound grenades

Tasers shoot darts connected to a meter-long wire that deliver a pulse of 50,000 volts of electricity through the skin. The victims are paralyzed for a short time and fall to the ground. In Germany, the launchers are called „distance electric pulse devices.“ In direct contact mode, they can also be used as stun guns.

The idea of equipping drones with so-called non-lethal weapons is not new. Since police forces around the world began introducing drone technology about 15 years ago, manufacturers have repeatedly announced developments to that effect. Among other things, a South African company had unveiled a prototype taser drone, but like its predecessors, it failed to catch on.

In the past 15 years, police fantasies have also included drones that drop tear gas as in the Israeli military, carry pepper spray or fire sound grenades. Such technologies are hardly suitable for everyday use, but they could be in the repertoire of special forces.

Design between Spiderman and Caterpillar

Axon has also developed bodycams, which are now also being used by German police forces. Axon is also the undisputed market leader in this segment. The announcement that it is now entering the drone business should therefore be taken seriously.

„Two technologies have made rapid advancements in recent years, and both could offer hope. The first: drones. […] The second technology: non-lethal energy weapons“, Smith said. Taken together, they can „effectively combat“ mass shootings.

In the blog post, Smith also provides a conceptual study of what the flying weapon might look like. In the black and yellow colors familiar from the taser and a design somewhere between Spiderman and a robust Caterpillar smartphone, the device could actually sell well to blue-light organizations.

EFF fears „mission creep“

Smith proposes installing the drones like sprinklers at schools nationwide. That sounds ridiculous, he says, but could be implemented quickly „without rigorous debate and laws that govern their use“. Emphasis is placed on the fact that the decision to use taser force should always be in the hands of an appropriately trained individual.

Meanwhile, the U.S. civil liberties organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) considers drones equipped with a taser to be a „dangerous idea“. The flying stun guns could creep into everyday police work via use in schools. This normalization of arming drones and robots must therefore be resisted, he said.

The EFF also warns of „mission creep.“ Time and again, it says, technologies made available to police for extreme emergencies are used at political rallies or to fight crime on the streets.

Deaths after taser deployments

As an example, the organization cites IMSI catchers, once developed for the military and now „brought home in the name of ‚fighting terrorism'“. Black Lives Matter demonstrators have been investigated with facial surveillance and Amazon Ring doorbell cameras, it says.

The Axon Ethics Council, of which EFF is a member, has also voted against the company moving forward with the project, according to the organization. According to a USA Today study, more than 500 people died after the use of tasers by police in the United States in the last 12 years. In Germany, at least six people were killed when taser were used since 2018.

Update 5 June: CEO Smith backpedals after public criticism and says, the company is „pausing work on this project“. „We have a lot of work and exploring to see if this technology is even viable and to understand if the public concerns can be adequately addressed before moving forward“.

A quadrocopter with 4 rotors from above in black and yellow.
Concept study of the taser drone based on a quadrocopter (Axon).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.