In July, Dallas police used a robot to deliver a pound of C-4, a plastic explosive, to kill sniper Micah Johnson, who had killed five police officers with a long-range rifle in the middle of downtown Dallas. But what if that robot, or a drone, was outfitted with a less-lethal weapon that could've been used to incapacitate the gunman and allow police to arrest him with out risking lives?
Last week, at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in San Diego, Taser International, which makes stun guns, body cameras, and digital evidence storage software for law enforcement agencies around the world, met with its customers, police and other law enforcement personnel, to discuss current products and ideas for future products. As first reported by the Wall Street Journal, Taser's advanced research team talked about the potential of a stun gun-equipped drone and how police could use an autonomous unmanned aircraft to conduct police work.
Could a drone be equipped with a Taser to engage violent suspects? Yes. According to a Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson, FAA regulations do not specifically prohibit mounting a weapon on an aircraft, so there are no government regulations against police flying weaponized drones. But does Taser have a stun gun-equipped drone for sale? No. At this point, the Taser drone is just a concept, says Rick Smith, CEO and founder of Taser.
Smith says his customers have been asking about how drones can be used in police work, but Taser does not have a drone product in the pipeline.
"At this point, we are not launching a drone product or even have anything in development," says Smith. "Right now, it's in the drawing and concept phase."
Many police departments are exploring various uses already. According to Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, police in Colorado, Florida, and North Dakota have used drones for various uses, including accident photography. Out of approximately 18,000 police departments across the U.S., Stanley estimates hundreds of departments are using or testing drones.
Last year, North Dakota become the first state to make it legal for law enforcement to use drones with "less than lethal" weapons, like stun guns, pepper spray, rubber pullets, and beanbags. House Bill 1328 requires police to get a warrant from a judge before taking flight.
According to a spokesman for the New York Police Department, the NYPD "does not own or use unmanned aerial vehicles in any capacity."
That said, the NYPD is exploring various use cases. "The department, along with the FDNY, is reviewing the feasibility of using unmanned aerial vehicles for joint search- and-rescue operations," said an NYPD spokesman from the Deputy Commissioner of Public Information office.
Like its body cameras, Smith says, all product development at Taser starts with customer meetings. Once a customer validates a need for a certain type of technology during exploratory discussions, Taser starts to think about whether a product will solve a big enough problem.
"The customer interest exists, but it is niche interest," says Smith of the Taser-equipped drones.
If drones become a police tool, it wouldn't be available to "the average cop driving around," says Smith. "It would be for high-risk situations when the SWAT team gets called out and they need to keep distance between a dangerous suspect and officers."
Instead of using a SWAT officer with a sniper rifle to take out a mass shooter or terrorist, Smith says drones equipped with Tasers could be used.
"Drones could provide the ability to incapacitate a suspect from afar with less-lethal means," says Smith.
Smith says less-lethal weapons like stun guns could help police diffuse a tense situation without escalating violence, and keep a suspect alive, without endangering bystanders with gunfire.
One of Taser's newer product lines is police body cameras and Evidence.com, which is a cloud-based software product that stores body camera feeds and other digital evidence for police departments. Smith says an obvious use case for drones is to film interactions, accidents, or pursue suspects fleeing a crime scene.
"High-speed police pursuits are extremely dangerous and result in a lot of people being injured or killed. These car chases are a liability cost for agencies and departments are looking for better ways to chase suspects," says Smith. "One of the uses being discussed is how drones can be used to follow vehicles of interest so a police car doesn't have to get into a high-speed chase."
This might seem like a small issue, but police chases are a danger to the public. According to data collected by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, approximately 11,506 people, which includes 6,300 suspects, have been killed during police chases in the U.S. from 1979 through 2013.
But the big question is this: Will Taser actually release a stun gun-equipped drone?
"I think it is too early to say at this point, we haven't made decisions around whether or not we want to make a drone product," says Smith.
But by the end of the year, when Taser starts planning its product road map for 2017, Smith will know if drones are in the company's future. Smith says before deciding to pursue any product, Taser calibrates the need for a specific technology against the size of the problem, then weighs that against any ethical and moral questions.
"We don't want fully-armed drones roaming the neighborhood, hovering and waiting to zap someone. We need to be rational, and if we do pursue a drone product it will have restrictions and controls to prevent misuse and abuse," says Smith.
When Taser first started selling stun guns to police, Smith decided to implement tracking and activity-logging technology to ensure departments could have a record of every time a cop used the Taser.
"Any new technology can certainly be abused, but that doesn't mean technology should not be used and implemented," says Smith. "The fact is that drone technology is spreading throughout society. I think police should have the same technology available to my daughter."
According to Stanley from the ACLU, the discussion around weaponized drones should focus on the type of future we want to live in. The ACLU is fighting against warrantless aerial surveillance by drones, but, as the Supreme Court ruled back in 1980, the Fourth Amendment, which bans unreasonable searches and seizures, does not prohibit warrantless aerial surveillance of private property.
When it comes to weaponized drones, the ACLU says no.
"We think drones should not be armed," says Stanley. "You can think of a narrative that shows how technology saves the day, but the down sides of a technology and risk of being abused or misused outweigh the potential good that can be accomplished by other means."
Although weaponized drones are not on the market and not officially in the product road maps of various companies for use by domestic police, Stanley says the public should realize how close we are to a future where drones are a common tool for police. (Weaponized drones are widely used abroad in the military and surveillance drones are used every day on the U.S. border with Mexico.) While not all drone use cases by police are bad, Stanley says the potential for civil rights infringement or injury does exist. As market forces like Amazon push for drone delivery and the FAA opening up regulations to allow for commercial drones, the drones are already here. It's just a matter of time until drones are used often to conduct police work.
"It's far away until suddenly it's here," says Jay.
Until police drones become a reality, Smith says it's important this discussion is happening above ground.
"The fact that we are even talking about drones is important. Concepts like this can become sensational and immediately everyone is against police using drones, but we need to have this conversation," says Smith. "I would say it's important that civilians and police can talk about these things without people running into a panic. As drone technology spreads throughout society, from civilians to ISIS, we need to make sure police can keep up."