How non-lethal armed drones can help address school shootings

Tell me if this sounds unnervingly familiar: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the slain children.”

It’s essentially part of the school shooting script: well-crafted statements from politicians, anger from a mourning community, and no concrete steps to prevent the next tragedy.

We’ll also hear the familiar, unworkable ideas that follow these events: New gun laws, and arming teachers. The former gets caught in the gears of our political system; the latter doesn’t pass even the basic test of logic. Police officers struggle to use their weapons in tense situations, and that’s after years of training. To demand that an untrained, armed teacher defend their classroom is simply begging for more tragic outcomes.

And that’s where the debate usually peters out. If gun laws can’t be passed and teachers can’t be armed, then I guess we’ll just have to get used to school shootings. And this is where I’d argue: We need different, better solutions, including ones that leverage technology to protect our schools, teachers and students.

“We need different, better solutions, including ones that leverage technology to protect our schools, teachers and students.” –Rick Smith, Axon CEO + Founder

Two technologies have made rapid advancements in recent years, and both could offer hope. The first: drones. Today, drones are more common than ever. They are delivering packages, monitoring highways, and even taking sports photography. They are fast, accurate, and versatile, and they’ve been used in both civilian and military contexts, on issues of the highest sensitivity, like intelligence gathering or enemy targeting.

The second technology: non-lethal energy weapons. Here, too, we’ve made great strides. Today’s non-lethal energy weapons are precise and effective, far more than the earliest models. Soon, non-lethal energy weapons will perform better than standard pistols, and with each passing year, non-lethal energy weapons will outpace their lethal counterparts.

Put together, these two technologies may effectively combat mass shootings. In brief, 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.

Of course, I appreciate the risks in such a proposal, and I know it sounds faintly ludicrous to some. That’s why we must start with a caveat: We cannot introduce anything like non-lethal drones into schools without rigorous debate and laws that govern their use. Here are three that can serve as a starting point:

1) Non-lethal drones should be used to save lives, not take them.

This must be a bedrock principle of any such proposal: Drones designed for a security purpose in a non-military setting must never have the capacity to take life. Simply put, drones that kill defeat the purpose of this proposal. Thus, any weapon attached to a robot or drone should only fire weapons that incapacitate; not kill.

2) Humans must own use-of-force decisions and take moral and legal responsibility.

In every dystopian sci-fi movie, the fear of technology is the same: What happens if the robot goes rogue? Which brings us to the second law of armed robotics: Human beings must control all drone decision-making and thus take moral and legal responsibility for outcomes. And not just any human being, but an authenticated human with the appropriate training and permissions as well as authority to act. In other words, a highly trained law enforcement official.

The decision to deploy force can’t be left in the hands of a random, untrained individual. For all our advancements in technology, human beings still possess judgment—the capacity to weigh risks and assess situations with nuance. We want to take the best of what technology and robotics can offer—speed, accuracy, and risk reduction—but never, ever lose sight of human judgment in volatile settings.

3) Agencies must provide rigorous oversight and transparency to ensure acceptable use.

A system like this can only be taken seriously if it starts with rigorous oversight—in the world of armed robots (even if only non-lethal), there’s no such thing as “shoot first, and ask questions later.” We must build the oversight and transparency systems into protective robotic technology from the get-go—both to ensure safety and to build public buy-in.

For starters, every single incident of drone force should be recorded and reviewed by an oversight committee. If a shooter comes into a church, for instance, and a drone is deployed and puts the shooter down, we cannot simply cheer that success. We have to examine the video closely and rigorously. Was this decision to use force reasonable? Was it legal? Was it appropriately targeted? What was the risk level to bystanders? How do we do better? These are self-evident questions, but asking them must be part of protective drone capabilities, not an afterthought.

Here, too, we’re the beneficiaries of advancements in data gathering and video recording. Today, police departments around the world can access terabytes of body camera video. The justice system has caught up too: Body camera video has become an integral, natural part of the justice system.

Today, we have the systems at hand to build accountable, life-saving, non-lethal drones that could help prevent the next Uvalde, Sandy Hook, or Columbine. What’s needed is the will, as well as a serious public discussion about deployments, operations, and test cases. We should force that discussion right now, in the immediate aftermath of an event that can serve as a call to action, as opposed to just another call for “thoughts and prayers.”

So what’s next?

Today Axon announced we have formally begun development of a TASER Drone System as part of a long term plan to address mass shootings.

I also invite you to join me for a discussion on this effort via Reddit AMA on Friday, June 3 at 1pm EST. Subreddit link here; check back for a link to the conversation thread.

Rick Smith the CEO and Founder of Axon Enterprise, the world’s leading provider of law enforcement technology solutions.