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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    apqo1 November 13, 2015

    A few comments:

    1) Your story loses credibility in the second sentence when you suggest that those of us who guard our Constitutional rights are “overreacting” to suggestions of gun control.  The rhetoric from gun control advocates makes their ultimate goal plain: they want to disarm all Americans and leave only the government (and criminals) armed.  We can debate this endlessly, but please don’t accuse us of intellectual failings because we disagree with those who would render us impotent to protect ourselves, our families and our communities.

    2) In your description of the Kodiak Industries Intelligun you wrote, “Plus, letting go of the handle [sic] automatically reloads the gun.”  I don’t know what you meant to convey with this sentence, but it makes no sense as written.  Letting go of the grip will not automatically extract a depleted magazine, insert a full one, and cycle the action to load a fresh cartridge.  What did you actually mean?

    3) You suggest that resistance to smart guns stems from a “lack of understanding” and “closedmindedness” about the technology, as if no one who owns or enjoys firearms could understand how such a device works, or how it might affect the reliability of a weapon.  With respect to reliability, we rely on guns to offer protection against life-threatening attack.  When called on to serve that purpose, the gun MUST work properly, EVERY time.  There can’t be a dead battery, a failed solder joint, a ceramic capacitor or IC with latent ESD damage or software that doesn’t recognize a sweaty, bloody or shaking hand.  Firearms are an extremely mature technology.  A well designed and well made handgun is virtually a miracle of reliability and ruggedness.  Honestly compare that to even a technological standout like the iPhone and you’ll see why we worry.

    4) No, there aren’t “nameless entities” trying to take away gun owners’ rights.  They have names and are well known.  One of them occupies the White House, another is running to replace him, and a third has promised to spend huge sums of his personal fortune to take away our rights.  Mandating smart guns is key to their strategy, principally because it will raise the cost of gun ownership dramatically. The recently imposed ammunition tax in Seattle is a salient example of this price-them-out-of-the-market strategy.  Ironically, that cost increase will be most detrimental to the poorest constituents of these politicians and activists.  Those least able to afford the protection offered by a gun will see it moved further out of reach.

    Finally, I come to All About Circuits (AAC) for information and discussion of electronics and the technology it enables, not for leftist moralizing or accusations of mental weakness or subscription to wild-eyed conspiracies.  I would be thrilled to see AAC post stories about the technology of smart guns: how engineers are solving the problems of user recognition, reliability, packaging, etc.  Those stories could be a fascinating addition to the site, but please leave aside your political opinions and advocacy.  That’s not what your users come here for.

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      djmurdoch November 13, 2015
      Thank you for your well written comment. I agree with you completely and made my own comment (not posted yet) in the same vein but not nearly as clear and articulate.
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      ckbckb November 13, 2015
      Super comment, thanks.
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      CyberEngineer January 21, 2016
      Your comment is right on. Thank you for writing such a great comment.
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    djmurdoch November 13, 2015

    Electronics and firearms have been my passion for over 40 years. That being said, the only way the two should be considered together is maybe a chronograph. This smart gun idea is nothing but another statist idea to bring in their communist utopia. I understand AAC wanting to chime in on the technology but this article is definitely slanted towards the statism side: “prepare a massive informational campaign to educate gun owners and others on the benefits of smart guns”. I do not feel I can continue with AAC and will cancel my account.

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    gnagy November 13, 2015

    The idea of a gun that only fires in the “right hands” is great. The reality, not so much.
    When you start adding electronics to something, you dropped its reliability and robustness by an order of magnitude or two.
    I love electronics. I love computers. I’m in robotics.
    I would not want a gun that may not recognize me when I need to protect my family, because of a dead battery, moisture getting into the electronics, or because I cut my hands and I had to put a bandage on it, or if I had to dig through my drawers to find the “special watch” when someone just broke in my door.

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  • User8192 November 13, 2015

    The “debacle” is only in the minds of utopian totalitarians who want to disarm the populace in the worst way possible, so they can subjugate and opress the people.  They also don’t much care for the plain language phrase “... shall not be infringed” in the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.

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  • BK James November 14, 2015

    First few lines show bias, that’s fine. I know where they are coming from (vs many of our politician with their so called “evolving” thinking)

    I love electronics and microcontrollers ... They all fail due to environmental conditions (heat/cold/moisture/G-force/EMF interference), weak/dead power source or programming errors.

    Guns are mechanical, and more 100x more reliable than any “electronic” system. My dad’s 40 year old rifle works fine and would bet my life on it… could you do that with your 40 year old radio/TV/computer?
    Guns have to work 100% of the time.  I can’t say Mr. home invader/rapist please stand by while I figure out why my smart gun isn’t pairing with my watch ... or since just got of the shower or was working in my car… the scanner won’t read my print (or grip sensor isn’t recognizing me since smashed my finger with a hammer).

    Criminals can open electronic car door locks, jam cellphone signals; so jamming the “watch-> gun” signaling isn’t impossible. Do you thing police and military will use smart guns if there is a .01% chance the enemy could disable them and create a one sided gun free/free kill zone?
    I have guns tucked away for easy access…  I may not touch ‘em for a year, but I know they will work when needed.
    Great example last week: Pulled out an old DVM… batteries dead… gun in next drawer was fine.
    Nice case of poison ivy on my hands made it impossible to use my laptop fingerprint scanner for 2 weeks; really regretted making my password complex!

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