In late August, the North Dakota legislature approved a bill allowing police in the state to arm their drones with “less than lethal” weapons. Not surprisingly, “less than lethal” is defined nowhere in the bill. Thus, North Dakotans could see taser-armed drones in their police departments–even though police-used tasers have killed 42 people this year alone, according to the Guardian. And while current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations prohibit commerically operated drones from dropping objects, an FAA spokesperson told USA Today that
A government aircraft operation needs FAA authorization in the form of a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA). We can’t speculate if an operation involving a Taser-equipped unmanned aircraft would be approved.
Notice that the FAA did not rule out approving a taser-armed police drones.
What else might a law enforcement entity want to put on a drone? Tear gas dispensers? Rubber bullets or other “non-lethal” projectiles? Or in the case of the Department of Homeland Security, the potential employment of unspecified “non-lethal weapons designed to immobilize” their targets?
In May 2015, the International Association of Chiefs of Police issued a model policy that provided the best answer regarding small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) operations
The sUAS shall not be equipped with weapons of any kind (emphasis added)
When he testified before the House Homeland Security Committee in March 2015, IACP president Chief Richard Beary spent a lot of time talking about potential criminal uses of drones. He did not discuss the perils of law enforcement arming its own drones, or the privacy implications of police-operated drones. While the IACP model policy was not yet public when he testified, it’s a shame Beary didn’t use his appearance before the committee as a forum to discredit the idea of arming police drones, and to talk about the need for police departments to get a warrant for drone use if such use might “intrude on reasonable expectations of privacy.” Those were messages the North Dakota legislature clearly needed to hear before passing their armed drone bill.