Axon’s Ethics Board Resigned Over Taser-Armed Drones. Then the Company Bought a Military Drone Maker

Company leadership expects to generate more than $1.5 billion in revenue in 2023, it said in an August investor statement. And by 2025, Rick Smith has set a target of reaching $2 billion. According to its own reports, Axon, which went public in 2001, has generated “over $15 billion in wealth” for its shareholders.

Still, the plan to arm drones with Tasers was not universally well-received by Axon’s shareholders, some of whom criticized the company for Smith’s announcement about the weaponized drones. A shareholder proposal submitted by the Jubitz Family Foundation, a Portland, Oregon–based foundation that promotes nonviolent alternatives to conflict, encouraged shareholders to vote to discontinue developing these drones.

“Axon proposed using AI surveillance, algorithmic predictors, and virtual reality simulations to stop mass shootings,” the proposal, which was included as part of the company’s 2022–23 annual report, reads. “Axon did not seek meaningful input from its in-house Community Advisory Coalition, AI Ethics Board, or Vice President of Community Impact prior to the announcement.”

After the ethics board’s resignations last year, “Axon has now replaced both the Community Advisory Coalition and the AI Ethics Board with a new advisory council, which Smith still does not commit to heeding,” the foundation added in its proposal.

“The rollout of this proposal demonstrates a tremendous failure of management’s self-governance procedures,” the Foundation wrote, and risked not only harming children psychologically and physically, but possible litigation and reputational damage.

The Jubitz Family Foundation did not respond to a request for comment on the proposal from The Markup.

In a lengthy response to the Jubitz proposal, Axon said robotic security could save lives, slashing gun-related deaths by presenting police with longer-range, remotely operable weapons.

“Axon is working to reduce violence and displace lethal uses of force with less-lethal alternatives that can save—rather than take—lives,” the company said.

“Based on our analysis of The Washington Post’s data set of fatal officer-involved shootings, we estimate that a more effective, longer-range handheld Taser device has the potential to reduce fatal officer-involved shootings by around 40 percent,” the company said. “When we run this same analysis looking at instances where police could have utilized a less-lethal capable drone, we estimate that a drone could likely have been used instead of lethal force in 57 percent of these fatal shootings. When we combine an advanced handheld Taser device together with remotely operated drone and robotic capabilities, we estimate that up to 72 percent of fatal shootings might be averted.” (The company did not share information about its analysis in response to questions about it.)

While Axon technology is used by major police departments and federal agencies, including the New York Police Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, the US Department of Homeland Security, and the Departments of Defense and Justice, according to the company, there isn’t proof that the products are solving the problem of police violence. According to the Washington Post database of fatal police shootings, the number of such shootings was higher in 2022 than it was in any of the previous seven years tracked. And recently, some police unions have argued they should be paid more just to use body cameras, a barrier to critical transparency even where these tools are available.