Taser manufacturer Axon is facing renewed criticism from former Ethics Board members over its plans to strap their weapons to drones.
The project first made headlines in June after the company announced it was going through with it despite an overwhelming majority of the company’s board voting against a pilot program, causing nine of 12 board members to resign.
Now, the nine former members have come out with a detailed report on the planning, execution, and fallout from the Project ION proposal, as it was named. Published in collaboration with the New York University School of Law Policing Project, the former members argue that the misuse of drones equipped with “non-lethal energy weapons” could violate civil rights and contribute to over-policing.
According to the report, which was released on Tuesday, the board considered multiple factors in its evaluation of the project, including the possible increased use of non-lethal force by police departments that were equipped with the drone.
“Board members took extremely seriously the potential life-saving benefit of Taser weapons mounted on drones, and acknowledged that Axon was willing to implement safeguards,” the report said. “But the members of the majority felt any discussion of safeguards must be assessed not in the abstract, but in light of the actual state of the world. These Board members believed that the proposed safeguards were insufficient to mitigate the harms of the technology, in large part owing to several structural problems with policing today.”
Less than three weeks after Axon’s board voted to halt a proposed pilot program for the drones, the company announced that it was proceeding with developing Taser-equipped drones, partially in response to the Uvalde school shooting in Texas. Axon positioned its ION drones as a solution to school shootings and proposed a scenario where a drone could be piloted by a remote operator and assisted with the temporary use of school-owned security cameras.
“Although the use of ION in response to school shootings had been discussed briefly as a potential use case, the [Ethics] Board had never evaluated it—it had never proposed safeguards specific to this use case nor even considered the special concerns that deploying weaponized drones and surveillance systems in schools might raise,” the report said.
Some members of the board also said that addressing an armed school shooter with weaponized drones seemed “deeply impractical.” Axon itself proposed a solution to the problem: putting cuts in all doors for the drone to pass through.
But board members had a myriad of concerns over Axon’s announcement, including the implementation of school-wide surveillance.
“Although the ostensible purpose of installing such surveillance would be to facilitate the remote operation of a drone, it is not difficult to imagine such a system being used for routine surveillance,” the report said.
Axon doubled down on its ION concept in the days following its announcement of the project, and it became clear to board members that the company had no plans to reassess its plans or consult with the board further. Nine Ethics Board members subsequently released a statement announcing their resignation.
“Although we all joined this Board understanding that we are advisory only—and have seen Axon reject our advice on some prior occasions—rushing ahead to embrace use of surveillance-enabled, Taser-equipped drones, especially when its Board was urging against unnecessarily precipitate action, is more than any of us can abide. We have lost faith in Axon’s ability to be a responsible partner,” the statement said.
After the resignations, Axon said the company was pausing work on the program, but CEO Rick Smith has recently indicated that the company is in talks with teachers, politicians, and the public in order to make ION happen.
The report concludes with a multi-step safeguard approach that the board proposed to Axon to keep ION drones from being misused, including heavy training for departments that wish to use the drones and the promise that the company would take back units from police that use them in an unauthorized or unethical way.
“We are willing to believe that Axon created the ION concept with good intentions, but unless and until we have developed better systems for police accountability, transparency, and oversight, this technology has too much potential to inflict harm,” the report said. “In assessing its future plans, we would hope that Axon takes this point to heart.”
Axon did not respond to a request for comment.