For many years, technology that enabled the use of guns only by those authorized to have them was the thing engineering labs and beta tests. Then, along came Armatix.
German-based Armatix earlier this year attempted to sell the first smart gun in the U.S. Its .22 caliber iP1 pistol debuted in one of California's largest gun stores. But it was quickly pulled from the shelves after some gun advocates pressured the store to stop selling the gun.
Engage Armament, a Maryland gun store, also announced it would sell the iP1, but reneged after gun-rights advocates allegedly lashed out on social media, called the store and even threatened its owner.
Ernst Mauch, an award winning designer and former chief technical officer at German gun manufacturer Heckler & Koch (H&K), designed the iP1 pistol.
Armatix's iP1 pistol with its iW1 enabling wrist watch (Image: Armatix).
H&K weapons are among the most widely adopted by military and police around the world. Among H&K's arsenal of high-end arms is the famed MP5 submachine gun.
Donald Sebastian, senior vice president for research and development at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), said the backlash against "smart guns" has little to do with the merits of the technology and more to do with a personal ideology.
"It has to do with strongly held views about personal liberties vs. states' rights," said Sebastian, who is also a smart gun tech designer. "Guns become a nice metaphor because its explicit in the Constitution and nothing else is. It takes it from being an intellectual argument to being something that can galvanize people."
Gun advocacy groups, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSA), have said they do not oppose smart gun technology, which they call "authorized user recognition" firearms.
"We do oppose any government mandate of this technology, however. The marketplace should decide," Mike Bazinet, a spokesman for the NSSA wrote in an email reply to Computerworld.
The argument goes that if stores begin selling smart guns, then legislators will draft laws requiring the technology.
That argument is not without merit.
This year, for example, Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass) introduced the Handgun Trigger Safety Act, which would require all handguns manufactured, sold or imported into the United States to incorporate smart gun technology within three years of the law being enacted.
More than a decade ago, New Jersey enacted legislation that requires smart gun technology once the state's attorney general determines a prototype is safe and commercially available. Hence, the protests against Engage Armament.
New Jersey State Senate Majority leader, Loretta Weinberg (D-District 37), who originally sponsored the New Jersey bill while serving in the State Assembly, has said she would consider repealing the law if, after doing so, the NRA would agree not to impede smart gun development.
As a recent Pew Research survey revealed, when it comes to gun restrictions, the American public is split: 50% favor gun control over gun rights, 48% believe the opposite.
Smart gun tech
The iP1 semi-auto pistol is authorized for sale in several states. Along with California and Maryland, the iP1 has passed regulatory requirements in Massachusetts and New Jersey, according to the company.
An RFID chip inside of a black wristwatch -- the iW1 -- enables the iP1 pistol. In order for the handgun to function, the matching watch must be within 10-in of it. The pistol can also be disabled with a timer or a PIN code entered into the iW1 watch. When the wristwatch is within 10-in, a green LED light on the gun's grip indicates it is enabled. When not, the light turns red, indicating the weapon is disabled.
When the iP1 is enabled, its LED light turns green. When permission is denied, it turns red (Image: Armatix).
David Whiting, a spokesman for Armatix, said Mauch chose a .22 caliber design for the company's first smart gun because it would require smaller, more intricate components -- hence proving its reliability for use in any other weapon.
"That's more difficult from a manufacturing standpoint, so if you can do with intricate, smaller parts, you can definitely do with larger calibers, such as 9mm - which they're expected to have shortly," Whiting said.
While the technology seems like something any gun futurist would crave, it has created a firestorm of controversy.
The NSSF, for example, has raised concerns about the reliability of smart gun technology, which uses either biometrics (finger print or handgrip recognition) or RFID tags, along with an activation mechanism on the weapon.
In a blog written last year, Larry Keane, the NSSF's senior vice president and general counsel, pointed out that all smart gun technology relies on batteries, and "who among us has not experienced a drained smart phone battery or had some other piece of electronic gadgetry not work, even a flashlight, fail when we needed it?"
"Most people can appreciate technology, while realizing it can let you down at the worst of times," Keane wrote.
Sebastian countered Keane's argument saying that the power required for enabling smart gun technology is miniscule, and batteries can be incorporated in loaded magazines that can rest in recharging docking stations. There are also technologies under development to use the gun's recoil action to recharge the batteries.
"I recognize the issue, but don't see it as technological show stopper," Sebastian said. "I think there are ways of addressing that issue without it becoming an Achilles heal in the process."
NJIT's Dynamic Grip Recognition on a Beretta 92F 9mm handgun (Image: NJIT)
While it's the first to offer integrated smart-gun technology to consumers, Armatix is not alone in its efforts. Smart gun technology comes in RFID chips, such as Armatix's wristwatch, as well as biometrics systems that can read fingerprints or even sense a person's unique grip.
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 (DGR) technology that Sebastian claims is 99% effective in preventing unauthorized use of a gun. Unlike Armatix's technology, NJIT's is aimed squarely at protecting children.
"I applaud anyone who is moving electronics into the weapon, but I'm not sure RFID technology solves the issue of child-safe guns," Sebastian said.
The problem is that the digital token required for an RFID enabled gun is stored separate from the weapon. The gun owner has to protect the weapon and the device with the RFID chip, such as a watch or ring.
NJIT's DGR technology uses 32 sensors in the gun's grip, which, like voice-recognition technology, can be trained to determine a particular person's grip in tenths of a second and then discriminate between authorized and unauthorized users. The technology actually works as a user begins applying pressure to a gun's trigger.
The gun also is capable of storing multiple user profiles, so that more than one person can use a weapon.
Donald Sebastian, of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, explains the school's Dynamic Grip Recognition smart gun technology.
NJIT's DGR technology was first tested in a Beretta 9mm pistol, but the micro processing technology in that weapon was outdated, as was the 9-volt smoke detector-style battery. NJIT is now developing the technology using a Sig Sauer P228 9mm pistol with the latest microprocessors and micro batteries. The technology disengages the gun's hammer.
The school plans to have six prototypes available in September, ready for manufacturers to test. "In six months to a year after that, we hope to have limited deployments with the military, the TSA and police forces," Sebastian said.
There are also aftermarket smart gun accessories that can be added to specific model weapons. For example, Kodiak Industry's Intelligun, for example, is an after-market accessory that replaces the pistol grip and the mainspring of an M1911-style .45 caliber pistol.
The smart gun technology comes in a fingerprint reader on the pistol grip, which determines whether the pistol's native safety mechanism should be unlocked. If the shooter's fingerprint is recognized upon gripping the pistol, three LED lights turn green and the gun is enabled. If not, the lights turn red and the safety mechanism remains activated. The $399 Intelligun grips also come with a safety override key, allowing a user to shut the system off.
A demonstration of how the Intelligun grip accessory works.
NJIT's DGR technology has caught the eye of the US Army's Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, which is helping fund the work on the technology.
NJIT also is among a large group of innovators who hope to receive funding from a non-profit initiative. The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, led by entrepreneur and gun-safety advocate Ron Conway, has offered $1 million in prize money, soliciting proposals for designs.
The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation has received more than 200 applications from innovators representing 30 countries and ranging in age from 13 to 81 years old, according to Margot Hirsch, president of the foundation.
"We believe that the majority of gun owners want to exercise their individual preferences when purchasing firearms and new accessories and features," Hirsch wrote in an email reply to Computerworld. "Admittedly, the technology has a way to go in terms of testing and refinement, but we're hopeful that without the fear of government mandates, technological innovation can begin to flourish and scale, and consumers who want to make safety a priority will eventually be able to find the products they want on the shelves."
The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation offers money toward three levels of development: companies with an idea in its infancy, those with a technology but no prototype and companies with prototypes. The competition closed March 31 and submissions are currently being reviewed.
Columbus, Ga.-based Safe Gun Technology (SGTi) submitted its prototype plans for the challenge. The company hopes to complete the prototype for a fingerprint reader that would be an aftermarket accessory on an AR-15 assault-style rifle. It hopes to complete that prototype in the next 60 to 90 days. It then hopes to complete a prototype for a pistol 90 days after that.
In the early stages, the company had been developing the technology for a shotgun, but the lack of a pistol grip and other factors on many models made it more difficult to apply. So it switched gears to focus on the AR-15, which has a pistol grip.
"There were 816,000 AR-15s sold into the private market last year, according to the ATF. That's a huge number," said Tom Lynch, president of SGTi. "How many [gun owners] would like an extra layer of protection just because the gun is laying around at home?"
According to the NSSF, not many.
But will it sell?
Last year, the NSSF released the results of a poll it commissioned McKeon & Associates to conduct that showed Americans are mostly skeptical about the reliability of smart gun technology.
That poll showed only 14% were very or somewhat likely to purchase a smart gun, and 70% said the government shouldn't mandate the technology.
Gun manufacturers such as Smith and Wesson have been wary about introducing the smart gun technology. Whether due to pressure from gun advocacy groups or a lack of demand, none have yet stepped forward with their own product.
Lynch, however, believes that once a start-up introduces a proven technology, the manufacturers will follow suit. "Once we prove consumer interest, that's when they'll want to get involved," Lynch said.
NJIT's Sebastian believes there's an enormous market for smart guns and he sees the technology not just infiltrating private homes, but also law enforcement and the military, members of which are just as passionate about protecting their weapons from the wrong hands. And, once the technology has been proven to work, the only thing remaining will be educating the pubic.
"All of this will depend on how successful we are overcoming fear, uncertainty and doubt," Sebastian said.
A demo of the Armatix iP! smart gun.
Lucas Mearian covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is [email protected].
Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.