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Taser drones in schools? The idea isn’t completely kaput

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Los Angeles School Police Sgt. Robert Carlborn watches over students lining up to pass through a security check point.

Axon, maker of the Taser, is reportedly keeping its controversial "Taser drone" idea alive, said journalist Dina Temple-Raston. David McNew/Getty Images

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There’s a real debate over the ethics of putting tasers on small, maneuverable, flying objects to be able to subdue dangerous people — and then trying to use these drones to protect schools.

A few years ago, a law enforcement tech company called Axon asked its own artificial intelligence ethics board for input on the project. The board spent a year studying a prototype program and decided putting a taser on a drone was not a good idea. Some weeks later, after the mass shooting at the school in Uvalde, Texas, Axon decided to keep what some call the “shock drone” alive.

With Axon’s public safety convention — dubbed Tasercon — going on this week, Marketplace’s David Brancaccio checked in with investigative journalist Dina Temple-Raston, host of the podcast “Click Here” about the world of tech security. She obtained new details about the original ethics reports.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: You got ahold of a document, an internal report from this Axon ethics board. Why was this board so concerned in this report, so concerned about this Taser drone operation?

Dina Temple-Raston: Well, at the root of it is they weren’t sure that officers could be trusted to use a Taser drone properly. There are 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. And the concern was that there wouldn’t be enough of a check. Here’s the former chair of that ethics board, Barry Friedman.

Barry Friedman (excerpted): “There was a group of us that were just concerned that as well as we could design this, and if designed well, as much as we believed it was something the world could benefit from, we couldn’t trust the overall variance in policing to make this a commercially viable product.”

Temple-Raston: Now, I should say here that Friedman is also the faculty director of the Policing Project at NYU Law. So he’s studied this a lot. And he said that the board just ended up thinking that the entire concept of weaponized drones was a little too dystopian.

Brancaccio: And this idea for flying Tasers for schools has been circling around for a bit.

Temple-Raston: It has. I mean, this is something that Axon CEO Rick Smith first brought up in the aftermath of Uvalde. And we spoke to another AI ethics board member about this — she’s a community organizer in Chicago, and her name is Mecole Jordan-McBride. And she said that when you looked at it closely, even the idea of putting drones in schools just didn’t make sense. Here’s what she said.

Mecole Jordan-McBride (excerpted): “So now we’re talking about literally putting a drone in every single school across America. I thought about the amount of money that would be, I thought about the over-surveillance of that.”

Temple-Raston: And the surveillance question is something that kept coming up as the board talked about this as well. These drones would require a host of cameras and other surveillance tools that a lot of people say don’t belong in schools and are an incredible invasion of privacy.

Brancaccio: Now, the ideas seemed to fall out of the headlines last year. Do you have any indication it might be gaining traction here in 2023?

Dina Temple-Raston: Well, Axon hosted a conference in Las Vegas this week, they call it something called Tasercon. And the CEO helped lead a presentation on drones during this conference. And he said that Axon had partnered with a number of drone companies. And then separately, they’ve announced that they’ve been engaging teachers and school administrators on the idea. Now we should mention that Axon didn’t agree to an interview with us. But they did say in a statement that “school drones” is still just an idea and not a product yet, and that it’s a ways away. But based on the company’s announcements and public posture the idea of Taser drones certainly isn’t dead yet.

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