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Could smart gun technology make us safer?

In the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, smart gun technology prevents a bad guy from using Bond's own Walther PPK to shoot him. Far fetched? Not at all.

And, in the wake of the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. last week, interest in gun safety is rising anew after developments in smart gun technology stalled out for a lack of interest and investors.

President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced a gun violence task force to come up with solutions to the problem of gun violence and is pressuring Congress to reinstate an assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004. He also wants stricter background checks and a limit on high-capacity gun magazines.

One area the president hasn't mentioned, but that is likely to come up, involves smart gun technology. Under development for more than a dozen years, it could use a person's unique grip, fingerprints or an RFID chip to limit weapon use only to someone authorized to fire the gun.

In fact, a half dozen campus police at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) already carry smart guns that prevent unauthorized use by disabling the trigger mechanism.

Smart gun technology proponents are quick to point out their systems would not necessarily have prevented the murder of the 20 children and six Sandy Hook Elementary staff by Adam Lanza on Dec. 14. "It is important to understand that these criminal acts have been perpetrated by authorized users with legally purchased firearms, and nothing in our technology would have stopped these killings," said Donald H. Sebastian, NJIT's senior vice president for research and development.

Sabastian pointed to news reports that Lanza's mother was a gun enthusiast who owned several weapons and took her son shooting with her, which would mean he would have likely had access and have been allowed to use the weapons. Had he not been authorized to use the guns, smart technology might at least deterred him.

Biometric authentication algorithm technology is about securing weapons in the home or workplace against unauthorized use.

Grip recognition

NJIT is a leading, and early, developer of smart gun technology. For more than a dozen years, it has been testing a Dynamic Grip Recognition technology that Sebastian claims is 99% effective in preventing unauthorized use of a gun.

Dynamic Grip Recognition uses 32 sensors in the gun's grip, which, like voice recognition technology, can be trained to recognize a particular person's grip pattern profile and discriminate between authorized and unauthorized users.

The effort began with discussions on how to protect law enforcement officials who may have their guns taken in a struggle with a suspect.

"That led to the introduction of RFID technology and that goes back to the early 1990s," Sabastian said. "That's a different set of constraints than the gun sitting in the sock drawer, locked and loaded in case something goes bump in the night -- protecting your kids from having access to that.

"That's what led to the selection of biometrics and use of grip recognition technology," he said. "It works while you're pulling the trigger. It's not like you put a thumb print on the bottom to turn it on, and for some period of time it's active and ready to go for some period of time whether you have custody or not."

Development has been slow, however, because funding has lagged, with little interest so far from venture capitalists. In fact, current prototypes are based on 10-year-old microprocessors because of a lack of funds, Sebastian said.

"We have found no interest on the part of gun manufacturers in commercializing any aspect of user-authenticating weapons," Sebastian said.

Sensors in an older generation of the current handgun once looked like this. Newer generations of the handgun will have sleeker, smaller sensors and microchips at least half the size of the ones in this photograph (Image: New Jersey Institute of Technology)

For Dynamic Grip Recognition to work, the gun's processor is first placed in learning mode. Then, the user must shoot about 50 rounds to train the weapon to recognize a specific grip. (Multiple users can be saved in the system's memory.)

The Dynamic Grip Recognition software algorithms can also be tuned to be more or less sensitive. For example, a gun could be tuned to only accept an adult's hand profile or one similar to the owner's, while preventing children from being able to use it, Sebastian said.

"If it's a kid, it will probably never be recognized as an authorized user because the physical geometry will never be a match," he said.

One problem with the current prototypes, which use a Beretta 92F 9mm semi-automatic pistol, is that besides the microprocessor, the battery and I/O interface technology used for programing the gun is a decade old and is too cumbersome for mass-market production. For example, the current battery is a 9-volt and the cable is based on either a USB cable or 25-pin RS232 connector that's years behind current technology. If upgraded, guns could be programmed using smart-phone LTE 5G wireless technology, Sebastian said.

A researcher on the smart gun team tests the gun's trigger switch. Beneath his hand sits a digital signal processor box. (Image: New Jersey Institute of Technology)

While NJIT may be using Beretta pistols to test its technology, the Beretta company has not supported the school's efforts, according to Sebastian.

"We're out of money," he said. "We're able to keep things going for another semester or so, but we're looking at private investment and we'll see if the mood is changing. "...That may bring more investors out of the cold."

NJIT's grip recognition is only one smart gun technology among many available. Others include fingerprint recognition though infrared fingerprint readers and the use of RFID radio chips.

While several technologies can be used to recognize fingerprints, such as infrared, optical scanning and pressure sensors that can determine the grooves of a person's fingerprints, Sebastian argues they're too kludgy to use, and not always reliable.

"At best, we found that they were 75% reliable, and that's under laboratory conditions," he said. "And there are all kinds of ways they can be confused and not work: Dry fingers on capacitor systems cause problems; leaving behind the residue of your finger print can cause problems; cold hands; gloves, no gloves. There are a lot of reasons just as a technology that it is flawed.

"Then you get into where do you put it on the gun, so that your finger falls in a natural way. It's very difficult...to find one place that fits for all."

RFID technology

The Georgia Institute of Technology has developed RFID smart gun technology for a company called TriggerSmart, an Irish firm that has been granted patents for its weapons' safety devices in the U.S. and 47 other countries. The technology, developed at the school's County Westmeath, Ireland campus, has yet to be integrated by any gun manufacturers.

"They've done a lot of work in the U.S. with trying to get gun manufacturers [interested], but to be honest there's quite a bit of resistance from the gun industry in the U.S. to the technology," said Joe Dowling, general manager at Georgia Tech Ireland.

"They see it as another level of control that they don't want to implement," he continued. "TriggerSmart has been saying, 'Hey, it's not that we don't want you to have a gun, it's just another optional safety feature you may want.' "

Computerworld attempted to contact gun makers Smith & Wesson and Mossberg & Sons, both of which have had smart gun development efforts in the past. Smith & Wesson officials did not return requests for comment. Mossberg declined to comment on the issue.

In 1999, Mossberg subsidiary Advanced Ordnance and electronics design contractor KinTech Manufacturing developed a smart technology using RFID chips that was marketed by iGun Technology Corp.. Officials at iGun Technology could not be reached for comment.

TriggerSmart's technology also works with RFID chips through an RFID tag carried by or implanted in the hand of an authorized gun user. The tag sends a high frequency radio signal to a small motor that unlocks the gun's safety mechanism. Unless the RFID tag is within one centimeter of the gun's handle, the weapon's safety will remain in the locked position and it cannot be unlocked until the radio signal is received. A small rechargeable battery that can hold up to a week's worth of power, enables the internal motor.

The distance at which the signal works can be tuned to be several centimeters away from the gun or as close as two millimeters.

The technology used in TriggerSmart's prototype costs about $50, but if it were mass produced that cost would drop significantly, Dowling said. While the technology can be retrofitted to guns, the process requires a pistol grip change as well as the motor install, making it better suited to integration during the manufacturing process.

While the technology was originally developed for police use, it could easily be adapted for civilian or military use.

"We've been talking with the New York Police Department about it," Dowling said. "Up to 40% of instances where an officer is shot, they're shot with their own gun. This technology would obviously solve that problem."

Biometrics access control

Not all biometrics technology is focused on integration with weapons. For example, LEID Products LLC has created Biometric Access Control System (BACS) that can be used on gun lockers and storage containers to restrict access to guns and to track when and by whom weapons are used.

LEID Products has also created electronic lockers and rifle racks to secure the weapons. Authorized users whose names and biometric information has been recorded, go to a kiosk and log in by using either hand geometry or fingerprint scans. Users can also be limited to specific weapons, even if they're allowed into a locker with a gun rack.

"For example, if a law enforcement officer hadn't been certified to use a Taser, then he wouldn't be allowed to log in for access," said Georgia Whalen, director of marketing for LEID Products.

Gun-locker access can be controlled locally or remotely by one or more administrators using a PC. "So if an event like what happened at that elementary school occurred, the administrator can touch a computer button at home and release all the equipment to all the officers," Whalen said.

Currently, several government agencies throughout the country have installed or are considering LEID's BACS lockers, including the National Institutes of Health, which adopted the technology to protect its armory in 2009. The U.S. National Park Service is also considering installing lockers in different locations at national monuments for emergency use by its police force, Whalen said.

But such systems would likely be too expensive for home use. Just the kiosk and software for BACS retail for about $18,000. One gun rack is about $8,000, Whalen said.

Political and social climate

Biometrics technology proponents readily admit that their systems can be thwarted, and no single technology or piece of legislation will completely solve the gun safety problem. There are also logistical issues. For example, what if an officer forgets his RFID tag and can't operate his weapon?

"Even if you have smart guns, people can find ways if they are competent enough to get around the technologies," Georgia Tech's Dowling said. "The question as to whether it prevents these mass shootings or not is still open. But it's one more barrier and, in my mind, it's about statistics and probability. If it reduces the probability by a certain percentage, then it's worth it."

Yet, Dowling admits the political and even social climate around gun safety has vacillated over the past two decades. During President Clinton's administration in the 1990s, there was intense interest in the development of the technology, he said. Once Clinton left office, support for the technology evaporated.

One problem, proponents say, is perspective. Gun enthusiasts and organizations such as the National Rifle Association may view smart gun technology as gun control instead of gun safety.

Since President Obama took office in 2009, however, there have been several mass shootings. U.S. army psychologist Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 and wounded 42 others at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009; Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in Tuscon, Ariz. in January 2011, killing six people -- including a nine-year-old girl -- and wounding Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

This year alone, there have been three mass shootings, including James Holmes' rampage in an Colorado movie theater screening of The Dark Knight Rises; Wade Michael Page's shooting of six people in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin; and Lanza's massacre of 27 in Newtown, Conn. last week

With all those shootings, gun safety proponents said attention may be turning back toward technology as a solution.

For example, NJIT has seen some renewed interest from venture capitalists, Sebastian said, though none from the gun manufacturing industry. "There are a lot of things that conspire against that," he said.

"I want to keep emphasizing that this is about gun safety and not about gun control," he said. "When you change the climate of discussion from gun control, you have people who might be more willing to talk about novel approaches to improving and increasing the safety without it becoming poisoned as a stealthy approach to gun control, and therefore, throwing the baby out with the bathwater."


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