Mass. may outlaw attaching guns to robots

Local News

New legislation supported by local leaders like Boston Dynamics would ban the weaponization of robots except by the military and police.

Boston Dynamics, the company behind lifelike advanced robots such as Atlas, is supporting new legislation that would prohibit attaching weapons to machines like theirs. David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe

A coalition of Massachusetts lawmakers, civil rights groups, and robotics industry leaders are coming together to support a bill that would make it illegal to outfit robots with weapons. 

The bill, filed this week by state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa and state Sen. Michael Moore, would prohibit “the manufacture, sale, and operation of robotic devices or drones that are mounted with a weapon.” If passed, it would be the first legislation of its kind in the country to be enacted, the lawmakers said. 

The legislation would outlaw the use and sale of “weapons-mounted robotic devices.” It would also ban the use of them to “threaten or harass” people and ban the use of them to physically restrain individuals. Those that violate the laws would face fines ranging from $5,000 to $25,000. 

“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,” Moore said in a statement. “I am hopeful that, if passed, this legislation can serve as a model for responsible robotics regulation in other states and beyond.”

The U.S. Military and its contractors would be exempt from the new laws. So would law enforcement officials disposing of explosives and private companies testing “anti-weaponization technologies.” The private companies would be required to obtain waivers from the attorney general, which would be evaluated and offered on a case-by-case basis. 

Also contained in the bill is a requirement for law enforcement officials to obtain warrants before using robots to enter private property or conduct surveillance in situations where a warrant would be necessary for a human officer engaging in that work. 

The bill has the support of various organizations, including the ACLU of Massachusetts, MassRobotics, and the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International. 

Boston Dynamics, the local company whose showcases of advanced robotics often go viral online, also threw its weight behind the bill. 

“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,” Vice President of Policy & Government Relations Brendan Schulman said in a statement. 

Last year, Boston Dynamics and six other robotics companies publicly pledged not to weaponize their general-purpose robots or the software behind them. On top of the obvious safety risks, the companies said in an open letter that weaponization could erode public trust and impede the beneficial work that robots could do for society. 

Some videos circulated widely online claiming to show Boston Dynamics robots wielding weapons have been disproven. But the company is aware of people actually buying robots for themselves and equipping them with weapons, Schulman told The Boston Globe

“Entrepreneurs need the stability of our legislature’s foresight, communities need safety from this fast-moving technology, and above all we have to act to ensure public confidence and safety,” Sabadosa said in a statement. “Robotics can, do, and will shape our economies and our lives for the better, and it is the duty of my colleagues and I to keep our attention on this developing technology.”