Decoding Design

New gun design uses RFID to boost safety

New gun design uses RFID to boost safety

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Radio frequency identification is the latest technology being applied to so-called "smart gun" technology. Can it beat out biometrics and other approaches?

TriggerSmart, a startup that has patented a system that relies on an RFID reader embedded in the handle of a firearm to authenticate its owner, is the brainchild of gun enthusiast Patrick O'Shaughnessy. A news item he'd read, about a police officer who had his gun stolen from him and used against him, inspired the concept. He and his partner Robert McNamara, after finding that biometric technology had too many shortcomings, decided RFID technology was up to the task and decided to have a go at designing a prototype and filing for a patent. There was just one small problem: getting a gun.

"We could not get our hands on a gun in Ireland," McNamara, in his thick brogue, explained to me.

Eventually, the pair legally cleared that hurdle and ended up creating a prototype with the help of researchers at Georgia Tech Ireland, which works with the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta to commercialize technologies developed in Ireland.

In the two years they've been working on the project, says McNamara, they've been able to develop a prototype and have secured their intellectual property in the United States, their initial target market for the gun technology, and have also patents filed and pending in 58 other countries including many throughout Europe, as well as Russia, China and Israel.

Here's how it works: a passive (batteryless) RFID tag is embedded in either a ring or a bracelet worn by the gun owner. Encoded to the tag is a unique number that an RFID reader embedded in the handle of the gun is programmed to recognize. As soon as the reader detects the tag, a microcontroller sends a message to a solenoid that is linked to the gun's safety, making it possible to pull the trigger. "All that works in less than a quarter of a second," says McNamara. "So as soon as you are ready to shoot, the gun is ready to shoot."

Reader module inside gun handle

But if the reader does not detect the RFID tag, it will not allow the gun's safety to disengage. This way, if a gun were wrestled away from its owner, the safety would re-engage (the reader could only detect the tag at very close range, so the user would need to be holding the gun for the safety to open). And if, say, a child were to discover the gun, or a thief were to steal it, he or she could not disengage the safety.

The type of RFID that TriggerSmart uses, 13.56 MHz, is the same technology on which many RFID-based identification cards are based. It's also the technology used in the RFID-secured passports, issued by the United States and many other countries.

"We know it will work," says McNamara of the RFID-controlled safety. But the next step -- embedding the RFID reader and antenna into a shock-proof casing that can be sealed into a gun handle and put through rigorous testing with live rounds -- is the most important one.

"Our idea, like putting seat belts in cars, is a safety thing. You need to prove the reliability," he says.

How long it will take TriggerSmart to prove that reliability is anyone's guess. Certainly, the idea of a smart gun isn't a new one -- other attempts have included biometric readers that authenticate the gun owner based on fingerprints, or his or her heartbeat. But the advantage that RFID has over those technologies is its immediate responsiveness. Gun owners want to know they can pick up their guns and use them, without delay, in the event of an emergency.

"If I had $500,000 at my disposal now, I’d have a reliable smart gun ready within the year, but realisticially speaking, I think you’re looking at three to five years. There are some states that have already introduced legislation with regard to smart guns. A New Jersey law states that once smart guns become available, all gun stores will need to sell only smart guns. Other states have smart gun laws ready to go through [their legislative systems]. So we are trying to get some political support in those states, particiular in New Jersey," says McNamara.

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure