EXCLUSIVE Axon halts work with Taser drones as most members of its ethics panel said they would resign

The headquarters of Axon Enterprise Inc, formerly Taser International, is in Scottsdale, Aizona, U.S., May 17, 2017. Picture taken May 17, 2017. To match Special Report USA-TASER/EXPERTS REUTERS/Ricardo Arduengo

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June 5 (Reuters) – Taser-maker Axon Enterprise Inc (AXON.O) said Sunday it was halting work on a project to equip drones with stun guns to combat mass shootings, a prospect raised by a member of its AI ethics committee told Reuters prompted an exodus from the panel.

The May 24 shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which killed 19 children and two teachers, prompted Axon to announce last week that it was working on a drone that could be remotely piloted by first responders to launch a taser at a target of to be fired about 40 feet (12 m) away.

“In light of the feedback, we are pausing work on this project and refocusing on continuing to work with key stakeholders to fully explore the best way forward,” Chief Executive Rick Smith said in a statement Sunday.

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Earlier, Ethics Council member Wael Abd-Almageed told Reuters that he and eight colleagues are stepping down from the 12-member board, in a rare public rebuke by one of the monitoring groups some companies have set up in recent years.

The aim of such groups is to collect feedback on new technologies such as drones and artificial intelligence (AI) software.

Smith said it was unfortunate that some members “choose to withdraw from direct engagement with these issues before we’ve heard their technical questions or had a chance to answer them.”

He said Axon “will continue to look for different perspectives to challenge our thinking and guide other technology options that we should consider.”

Axon, which also sells body-worn cameras and police software, said in February its customers include about 17,000 of the approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States.

The idea of ​​a taser-equipped police drone has been under investigation since at least 2016, and Smith has illustrated how to stop an active gunman in a graphic novel he wrote.

The company first approached its ethics committee more than a year ago about operating a limited police pilot with Taser-equipped drones, which members voted eight to four against, said Abd-Almageed, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Southern California.

Axon announced last Thursday that it was still working on the technology, hoping to stimulate discussion in the wake of the Uvalde shooting. Read more Its shares rose almost 6% after the announcement.

“After these events, we get caught up in fruitless debates” about guns, Smith said. “We need new and better solutions.”

Ethics committee members were concerned that the system could potentially be used beyond shootings and exacerbate racial injustice, undermine privacy through surveillance and become deadlier if other weapons were added, Abd-Almageed said.

“What we have now is just dangerous and irresponsible and it’s not very well thought out and it’s going to have negative societal consequences,” he said.

Colleague Mecole Jordan-McBride, advocacy director at New York University Law School’s Policing Project, said last week the board needed more time to weigh the idea. The board did not evaluate the non-police use of the drones, it said.

Founded in 2018, the committee has productively led Axon to sensitive technologies such as facial recognition. But the company’s drone announcement ahead of a formal board report went against practice, according to Jordan-McBride and colleague Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington.

Chairman Barry Friedman is also resigning, Abd-Almageed said. Friedman, available by phone, said he was available for comment Monday.

CEO Smith acknowledged limitations and uncertainties surrounding the project, noting that a drone without a taser alone could be enough to distract a shooter.

When asked by the social media service Reddit, Smith wrote on Friday that drones could be stationed in hallways and enter rooms through special ventilation slots. A drone system would cost a school about $1,000 annually, he said.

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Reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in Palo Alto, California and Paresh Dave in Oakland, California; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel

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