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Will Drones Play a Role in Reducing School Shootings?

So-called “TASER drones” have been proposed as one way to secure schools. An interview with the CEO of public safety tech vendor Axon illustrates how the situation is more complicated than deploying armed robots.

Students sitting at a table in a cafeteria eating lunch.
Two things are true in the U.S. in the early 21st century:

School shootings continue to happen.

Public safety agencies continue to embrace robotic technology.

And according to a recent Marketplace story focused on potential advances from public safety technology supplier Axon, those two trends could eventually lead to the use of drones equipped with TASERS to protect schools.

In an interview with Government Technology, Axon CEO Rick Smith addressed those so-called “TASER drones” for schools — also called “shock drones” — and discussed how the company will handle the growth of robotics in public safety.

The idea of armed drones in schools is “on pause,” as he told it — an active idea if not an actual product. The company appears sensitive to the concerns raised about the concept and is seeking more input from experts as Axon continues its broader drone development.

“With the right ethical approach, the use of robotic security, in particular drones, in public safety has the potential to change the course of lethal interactions between the community and police,” he said in an interview conducted via email. “Substituting a robot for a human can help in many types of scenarios and reduce use of force.”

Axon, of course, already provides a variety of gear to law enforcement agencies. The company is perhaps best known for its body cameras — essential equipment in this era of increased demand for police transparency and accountability — along with TASERS, records and evidence management software, and the Axon Air livestreaming drone.

As more agencies buy tech from the company, Axon also is working toward what it called a “moonshot goal” of cutting “gun-related deaths between police and the public in half over the next 10 years.”


Robots will play a part in that work.

“Axon’s belief is that the future must become less lethal, and we maintain a philosophy that wherever lethal options exist, society must ethically consider less-lethal alternatives,” Smith said.

As the Marketplace story reported, Axon a “few years ago” charged its ethics board for artificial intelligence to consider using drones equipped with TASERS for school security. A prototype program emerged, but eventually the board decided that the idea was not a good one, the report stated.

Among the main concerns was that not all police officers would have the training or competence to use such a tool, according to journalist Dina Temple-Raston’s reporting. Over-surveillance also caused worry among board members.

According to the report, the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, kept the drone idea going. That decision came as local and state officials pushed for more spending on school security, and such features as panic buttons and locked doors, in the wake of those murders.

Smith told Government Technology that the story highlights a report that “was written on behalf of some resigned members of the former AI Ethics Board and it formalizes their position on less-lethal enabled drones, but does not share any new information that we have not addressed previously.”

He added that the concept is “on pause” as the company continues to listen and learn from outside sources about the idea of deploying such drones in schools.

Such technology, he said, represents a “very narrow, very niche use case that was merely a concept discussed” as a potential reaction to ongoing school shootings.

“Our true focus remains on advancing robotic security broadly in public safety in line with our mission to protect life,” he said.


What happens next with drones will likely depend in part on feedback from the company’s new Axon Ethics & Equity Advisory Council, which stems from Axon’s former Community Advisory Coalition, he said.

Smith said the public, in general, is behind the idea of using drones that offer less lethal ways of resolving emergency situations. Vital to that support is accountability — such as detailed flight records for each use, and data about the direction and zoom of drone cameras on those flights — and comes with training and a “keen eye toward racial equity.”

He also emphasized that when it comes to school shootings — a problem that shows no signs of easing anytime soon — public safety technology providers must look at more than TASERS.

“I think it really goes back to identifying greater mechanisms for increasing visibility and communications without the need for human interaction,” Smith said. “Greater opportunities to leverage technology and robotics as a first responder provide benefit in having quick eyes on a situation to understand the best way to proceed.”
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.