Engineers Could Solve the Smart Gun Debacle

November 02, 2015 by Jennifer A. Diffley

Incorporating wireless technology into gun ownership could be the way to reduce fatalities from accidental shootings.

The topic of smart guns caught fire this week when 60 Minutes released a story on Americans' relationship with firearm technology. Unfortunately, it seems those Americans who overreact when anything sniffing of gun control comes into the picture are loathe to admit that smart guns could reduce accidental gun fatalities, like those occurring when children discharge guns found in their homes. Having personalized safeties on guns seems like a no-brainer: after all, we have safety caps on medicine bottles, why wouldn't Americans embrace guns that only fire when we need them to? 

The answer probably comes down to a lack of understanding about technology. For instance, Bob Owens at Bearing Arms says that the general public won't "ever" be interested in smart guns because, "There hasn’t been a single consistently reliable 'smart gun' made that is simple, or robust, or reliable."

This sort of closemindedness shouldn't be foreign to makers: after all, they're used to hearing stop words (electrical engineers were told cellphones and blue lasers were an impossibility). So, alright, let's assume that Bob Owens and others of his ilk are correct in assuming that there isn't currently a viable smart gun on the market-- here's a look at where the techonlogy currently stands and where it can improve.

The Armatix iPi relies on a companion watch to fire.

The Armatix iP1, made by a German company, is a pistol armed by a wearable. The watch requires a pin code to arm the weapon and shows charge levels on both the watch and the gun. The watch itself is waterproof and a charge will last for about 5,000 rounds. It communicates with the gun via RFID. The gun will only fire if it's on target, and if the watch is separated by more than 10 inches from the firearm, it won't fire either.

Kodiak Industries' fingerprint sensor.

The Intelligun from Kodiak modifies an existing 1911 model to recognize the owner's fingerprint. This seems like the obvious way to go for smart guns: one owner, one set of prints (though other prints may be added for additional users). Plus, letting go of the handle automatically reloads the gun. However, anyone who's reliant upon their iPhone's fingerprint sensor knows that the reader isn't perfect. Opponents to smart guns claim that fingerprint readers aren't failproof enough to be used on firearms, especially if the gun won't fire in case of an emergency. Of course, even guns without finger print sensors aren't totally fail-proof: misfires happen fairly regularly in the gun world.

Still, if makers can improve fingerprint technology to near-perfection, gun users may be more willing to buy a smart gun. 

The New Jersey Institute of Technology has developed something called Dynamic Grip Recognition. It's not available to buy yet, but this technique utilizes piezoelectric sensors and microchips within the grip of the handgun to memorize the user's grip, which then allows the gun to engage. Grip signatures are as individualized as fingerprints, so it wouldn't matter if the user were wearing gloves or squeezing hard: the grip signature would remain the same. The video below goes into more detail.

The primary issue seems to be that gun owners are distrustful of incorporating technology into their firearms for fear that the guns won't work when needed most. There's also a fear that the devices would be able to be hacked by terrorists or other bad guys. Understandable concerns, but the insinuation is that some nameless entity is on the hunt to take away gun owners' rights. Owners should still have the right to own a safe weapon that won't fire in the hands of their own children.

The opportunity for makers is clear: create a smart gun that really is smarter than anything available. While wearables are tantalizing to incorporate, keep the technology native to the device so that it's harder to hack. And then prepare a massive informational campaign to educate gun owners and others on the benefits of smart guns: they could actually be the key to appeasing both sides of the gun control debate.

  • nsaspook November 05, 2015

    Useless technology

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    Rodney Phillips November 10, 2015

    Gun owners do not fear the technology. They fear mandated technology.

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    Jim Stockton November 13, 2015

    A firearm needs to be purely mechanical to be reliable. Water & water vapor will possibly render electronics useless, while a mechanical mechanism will still work. A firearm that requires battery or to be in range of a near field transmitter is also useless. The cry for smart guns is a ruse to drive up the cost such that no one can afford one. California has already buried that nugget in their gun law, and will outlaw sales of purely mechanical guns after a smart one is on the market. This is blatantly unconstitutional, but will take a party with standing and a long time to get it overturned.

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