A few days after the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Tex., last May, Axon Enterprises CEO Rick Smith announced the company had started developing Taser-equipped drones. The technology, Smith argued, could save lives during future mass shootings by incapacitating active shooters within seconds. For Axon, which changed its name from Taser in 2017, the concept seemed a sensible next step for stakeholders who share Axon’s public safety mission, Smith said, The Markup reports. “In brief,” he wrote, “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.”
The announcement prompted significant concern. A few weeks before Smith’s announcement, a majority of the members of Axon’s AI Ethics Board—which consisted of a dozen academics, attorneys, activists, and former law enforcement officials—recommended the company not move forward with a pilot study of Taser-armed drones, called Project ION. The board had spent more than a year considering the Taser-equipped drone project, but had never considered any case in which it would be a solution to mass shootings. “I begged Rick not to go public with the weaponized drone plan without consulting with the board, as our operating principles required,” said Barry Friedman, founder of NYU Law School’s Policing Project and former Axon ethics advisory board chair. Within a week of the announcement, nine of Axon’s 12-member ethics board resigned, saying ihey had “lost faith in Axon’s ability to be a responsible partner.” After the board’s dissolution, Axon halted its Taser-drone program temporarily. Former board members released a report in January 2023 criticizing company leaders for “trading on the tragic shootings which had just occurred in Uvalde and Buffalo.” The report included recommendations about Taser-drone technology, including the need for accuracy and safety thresholds, as well as local lawmakers’ approval and internal department policies governing the drones’ use.