If I were to deploy an autonomous drone that went around shooting people, what could I be convicted of?

Suppose that all decisions were made by the drone, and I had no intent of this happening. E.g., perhaps I wrote an algorithm that discerned between what and what not to shoot, but a bug slipped in that caused it to shoot people.

Although it's, in my opinion, subjective, I'd say that the possibility of the drone killing someone would be one that came across the deployer's mind, but, still didn't expect to happen. Sort of like a nuclear power plant melting down.

Contrarily, what if I did design the drone to shoot people, but I didn't actually pull the trigger?

  • 3
    If you put a gun on an autonomous drone, you're going to have a very hard time convincing a jury that a reasonable person would not have foreseen that it could kill someone.
    – cpast
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 20:48
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    @Tobi So, what you're saying is that you made an algorithm designed to have it shoot people under some circumstances? In that case, a reasonable person would definitely forsee that it could shoot someone.
    – cpast
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 20:56
  • So you're asking if you could build a self-directing robot, equip it with a gun, and then claim non-culpability for it shooting people? No, of course you can't. As for the charges, murder is the obvious one, but you'd be running afoul of many laws (aviation laws, laws prohibiting destructive devices, speaking of destructive devices you're probably a terrorist now, etc). It's less a question of what laws apply (answer: a lot) and more a question of which the DA would pick, which is unknowable because that relies on their demeanor and the political climate.
    – Michael
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 23:54
  • "Human commanders or operators could not be assigned direct responsibility for the wrongful actions of a fully autonomous weapon, except in rare circumstances when those people could be shown to have possessed the specific intention and capability to commit criminal acts through the misuse of fully autonomous weapons. In most cases, it would also be unreasonable to impose criminal punishment on the programmer or manufacturer, who might not specifically intend, or even foresee, the robot’s commission of wrongful acts," (Human RIghts Watch). I'm confused,,,
    – Tobi
    Commented Mar 4, 2017 at 23:57

2 Answers 2


In the US, it depends on the jurisdiction because each state has its own homicide statutes: but, the defining elements don't differ a lot. Drawing on Washington state law, the first question is whether you intended to kill a person (it doesn't have to be a specific person). If you did, you have committed first-degree murder. It is first-degree murder, because it requires a certain amount of advance planning to kill with a drone. It does not matter that the drone houses the gun that killed the person and a program determines when the gun fires (the "it was the drone, not me" defense gets you nowhere: otherwise, you could always claim "It wasn't me, it was my gun / knife / fist".)

If instead this is a badly-designed pig-slaughtering drone, then it could be manslaughter in the first degree, if the act was reckless, or manslaughter in the second degree, if the act was with criminal negligence. To determine which it is, you look at the definitions:

A person is reckless or acts recklessly when he or she knows of and disregards a substantial risk that a wrongful act may occur and his or her disregard of such substantial risk is a gross deviation from conduct that a reasonable person would exercise in the same situation.


A person is criminally negligent or acts with criminal negligence when he or she fails to be aware of a substantial risk that a wrongful act may occur and his or her failure to be aware of such substantial risk constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise in the same situation.

So it would depend on whether you decided that safeguards which would prevent shooting people were too much bother (you know there is a risk and set aside that concern), or it didn't occur to you that a flying gun might hurt a person.

  • So if it has a "is it a pig" check written by a programmer (as suggested in the question) it probably won't be reckless or criminal negligence. Does he get off with a lessor negligence?
    – user4460
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 19:16
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    To really judge the matter of criminal negligence, we need more facts. Let's assume that the jury finds it did not rise to the level of criminal negligence: then that is it, for criminal liability. Civil liability, OTOH, is virtually guaranteed.
    – user6726
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 19:28
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    There's actually pre-drone case precedent for this. Traps set up to kill whoever triggered them were given special rules way before drones were a thing. The same theory applies here. They made the decision to kill someone when they set up the device. What matters is if the person detached themselves from controlling for cases where nobody should die despite setting off the trap. They'll always be committing a first degree murder since they knew someone was going to get killed by the device. The legal term of art is "spring gun" (you can find stuff on the topic with a simple web search). Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 17:16

UK answer:

Murder requires 2 things, intention to commit murder, and the causing of someone's death.

It's easy enough to prove that you physically caused the death of anyone that your autonomous drone kills, since if you didn't activate/program/launch the drone in the first place, these people would still be alive.

Regarding the intention to commit murder, intention can be inferred even if you didn't want people to die from your robot. When you know that your actions will very likely cause the death of people (that death was "virtually certain" from your actions) then the law would accept that as intention to kill someone, even though technically you didn't want someone to die.

Therefore you would be convicted of murder.

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