Massachusetts legislature to consider bill banning armed robots

Boston Dynamics, a supporter of the bill, also signed an open letter in 2022 pledging to not weaponize robots. | Source: Boston Dynamics

Massachusetts State Rep. Linsay Sabadosa and State Sen. Michael Moore have filed “An Act to ensure the responsible use of advanced robotic technologies”. This act would prohibit the manufacture, sale, and operation of robotic devices or drones that are mounted with a weapon. 

This first-of-its-kind legislation will implement regulations aim at protecting the public while bringing stability and predictability to an emerging market and its entrepreneurs. The bill has three primary provisions related to robots, drones, and other uncrewed robotic devices in Massachusetts. These provisions: 

Ban the sale and use of weapons-mounted robotic devices
Ban the use of robotic devices to threaten or harass
Ban the usage of robotic devices to physically restrain an individual

Those found in violation of these provisions will face fines between $5,000 and $25,000, in addition to any other penalty imposed due to violations of existing laws. 

“Very often, the pace of innovation moves faster than critical regulation that protects the public. I’m pleased to have worked with Representative Sabadosa, the ACLU of Massachusetts, Boston Dynamics, and so many others to get ahead of what can be a very dangerous technology if in the wrong hands,” Senator Michael Moore said. “This bill puts reasonable guardrails around the use of robots to harass members of the public and bans the weaponization of this technology by those without strict oversight, while also introducing rules for law enforcement to bolster public trust. I am hopeful that, if passed, this legislation can serve as a model for responsible robotics regulation in other states and beyond.”

The US Military and its contractors, law enforcement officials disposing of explosives, and private companies testing anti-weaponization technologies with case-by-case waivers from the Massachusetts Attorney General, are exempt from the penalties created by the bill. 

The bill also codified requirements that a warrant is needed when a robot enters a private property, except in exigent circumstances. This measure is intended to assure public confidence in law enforcement officials’ use of these technologies. The bill also requires that information about the usage of advanced robotic technology by law enforcement agencies must be available to the public under Massachusetts public records law. 

“Advanced mobile robots are incredible tools that can enrich our lives and keep people safe, but makeshift efforts to weaponize general purpose robots threaten public trust and acceptance of this emerging technology,” Brendan Schulman, Vice President of Policy & Government Relations at Boston Dynamics, said. “We recently led a consortium of six leading robotics companies calling on policymakers to ensure the ethical use of general-purpose robots and prohibit their misuse. We are proud to have worked in collaboration with Representative Sabadosa, Senator Moore, civil rights advocates, and robotics industry leaders, to help develop the nation’s first comprehensive legislation on this topic, in our home state of Massachusetts.”

Now that the bill has been introduced to the Massachusetts House and Senate the act will be assigned to legislative committees for evaluation and testimony. 

While this piece of legislation is the first of its kind in the country, it likely won’t be the last. Conversations about whether or not weaponized robots should be used are ongoing. Last year, the San Francisco supervisors reversed course and unanimously voted to temporarily ban its police department from using robots with lethal force. The issue was sent back to the committee for further discussion and could be voted on again in the future. 

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