If you’re an avid CleanTechnica reader, you know that we cover drones sometimes. They’re today’s most widespread example of electric aviation, and they’re displacing fossil-fueled manned aircraft, so it makes sense to be excited about them. But we also have to be realistic about what we can and can’t do with them. They’re not a panacea to all of the world’s problems.
A recent article by AXON’s CEO (the company formerly known as TASER) and a press release announced that the company wants to build drones with tasers and sell them to law enforcement and security. In theory, this sounds like a great idea because it would keep personnel out of harms way and incapacitate a shooter or other threatening person without killing. But in practice, it’s probably going to be an expensive solution in search of problems that could be more easily solved by other methods.
I’ve been through a law enforcement academy (where I got shot with a taser as part of training in using them), have worked full-time as a firearms instructor, and I’m an FAA certified drone pilot, so I know a few things about tasers, security, and drones. With this experience in mind, I have a number of reasons to think taser drones won’t work out as well as the sales pitch claims.
Pilots Need Lots of Training
While anyone can pass a short online test and fly a cheap camera drone, flying for reasons other than recreation is a lot more involved. To become a certified remote pilot, you have to pass an in-person test at an authorized testing facility that covers a variety of subject areas. Here’s just one example of what you’ll see on such a test:
This is the FAA’s flying map for the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. Want to pass the FAA test? You’ve gotta know how to read this map (or others like it) and answer questions about it. Is it legal to fly at a certain location on the map? What’s the hazard a certain distance from a certain point? Where’s the airport? What class airspace is on the ground at this one spot?
This is just one skill among many. It’s easier than it looks at first, but only if you learn to read these maps. And this is just one of a number of different things you need to learn to pass the test. The FAA figures you’d need around 20 hours of study to be ready to pass the test.
Getting licensed is just step one, though. You’ll come away not knowing how to actually fly a particular drone, but you’ll know how to not get in legal trouble. So, if a school district or police department (or a school district’s police department) hires you to fly one of AXON’s future drones, you’ll need to get some training and regular practice time too.
Plus, you’ll need to know how to effectively use a taser and know what situations a taser is actually useful in. Hollywood makes tasers look like they’ll reliably knock someone out cold without doing any permanent damage, but the reality is far more complex and limited than that. So, you’ll need to learn that, too.
Yes, it is true that flying a drone indoors isn’t regulated by the FAA, but it’s doubtful that law enforcement or security would want to limit their use of expensive taser drones to indoor use only. So, operators will need training and experience.
Keeping Drones & Pilots Ready To Fly
So, you’ve got the training, got the drone (more on that below), got training for that, and you’re (hopefully) part of a team of other drone pilots who can work when you’re off duty or on vacation. Great.
Now, you’d better keep your drone (and the backup drones) ready to fly at all times. You’ll need to have spare batteries and spares for your spares because you can’t just leave drone batteries plugged in at 100% all the time (degradation). You’ll need to regularly inspect the drone and perform maintenance. You’ll need to perform software updates (and these go wrong sometimes). You’ll also need to maintain inventory of spare parts, like propellers.
Also, you’ll need to keep up with continuing education from both the FAA and possibly from the drone manufacturer.
Mess up on just one or two of the things above and your drone will not be ready to fly in an emergency. You probably won’t be assigned to fly drones full time, so hopefully in the rush to teach, be a school administrator, security guard, or police officer, you don’t forget about any of it.
Darts Don’t Always Stick
Assuming everything above goes right, the taser drone is still far more likely to fail than Hollywood (or the AXON CEO’s graphic novel) would have you think.
Two things have to go perfectly for a taser to work. Like anything electrical, a taser requires somewhere for the electricity to go in and somewhere for it to go back out. Batteries have two terminals. Electrical plugs in our homes have at least two prongs. So, a taser must have two darts.
Both darts must contact and stick into something that can conduct electricity. Yes, the human body can conduct electricity, but thick clothing, a leather jacket, or body armor cannot. If either dart misses the target or lands somewhere where it can’t conduct electricity to the other dart (through the target), then the taser cannot do anything useful.
After police shootings, people often ask, “Why didn’t they use the taser?” The reason is that when there’s a deadly threat, the lack of reliability of the taser isn’t something a police officer is going to gamble their life on. They’ll go for the more likely method of stopping the threat, which is usually a gun.
Attaching a taser to a drone, even if that drone has a really good autonomous computer, doesn’t solve these reliability issues.
This Adds Up To Serious Expense & Risk
For a school or police department to have a serious non-lethal drone program, they’ll need at least three pilots to cover all shifts and make sure someone is present who can operate the drones. When you consider that people get sick and want time off, you’ll probably need more like 5-6 pilots. They will need training, and that will have to happen on the clock. Continuing education will also need to happen on the clock.
Think AI will replace the pilots? AXON’s own press release has its own version of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. The first “law” for AXON is: “Humans must own decisions and remain accountable. Robots must be controlled by authenticated human operators who accept legal and moral responsibility for any decision that impacts a human subject.”
So, you’ll need trained pilots, even if the law allows autonomous security drones indoors.
The drones themselves won’t be cheap. A professional photography drone costs anywhere from $2000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and this isn’t going to be a camera drone. With the needed capabilities and the propensity for corporate America to charge government a premium, I’d expect nothing cheaper than $10,000 per drone. You’ll need a minimum of two drones per facility, so that there’s a backup. If you’re putting them in police cars, you’ll need at least three to make sure there’s always one that can show up to the scene because its operator is on shift.
Most alternatives to securing facilities (trained and armed personnel, hardening the facility, other security systems) are more reliable and cost less, and given the less-than-perfect nature of tasers, you’re still going to need to invest in those alternatives regardless.
Worse, if you waste precious seconds and minutes on a taser drone that may or may not work, you could cost lives that could have been saved if you had deployed other resources against the shooter faster, or better yet, kept them from even getting inside.
There’s plenty of room for debate on what the right thing to do about this problem, but it seems fairly clear to me that trying to rely on taser drones isn’t a viable option.
Featured image: AXON’s taser drone concept. Image by AXON.
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