Efforts to restart smart-gun innovation could misfire again

Smart-gun technology is now benefiting from faster processors and the miniaturization of processors

smart gun

Last year, Germany-based Armatix attempted to sell this .22-caliber iP1 pistol 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 it.

Credit: Armatix

Jonathan Mossberg is a descendent of a nearly century-old, leading American arms manufacturer, so a couple of months ago when his 21-year-old daughter refused his gift of a handgun because she was afraid an attacker might take it away and use it against her, he realized he'd found a key demographic for a smart gun.

Sixteen years earlier, Mossberg had been working at his family's namesake company, O.F. Mossberg & Sons in North Haven, Conn., which was founded in 1919 by his great-grandfather Oscar. The company had previously attempted to develop a shotgun that could be fired only by its owner, but the technology proved unreliable so the younger Mossberg set himself the task of developing a more sophisticated weapon.

As the platform, he chose the company's Model 500, a 12-gauge shotgun in production since 1961. Mossberg's goal was to create a gun that could pass a U.S. military use standard (also known as Mil-Spec), while also preventing anyone other than its owner to fire it. And he succeeded -- 16 years ago.

"My patent attorney thought I had the next dotcom, but focus groups said they weren't interested in circuit boards in guns," said Mossberg, who is 51.

However, "half a generation later" Mossberg found technology-savvy consumers who were ready.

"Kids are living on their cell phones; reliability of the circuits boards are not an issue with them. The cops love the product," Mossberg said.

But the picture's still not completely rosy. Like other innovators who've developed smart gun technology, Mossberg found seed money difficult to come by for his iGun Technology Corp. and its iGun. Still, he managed. Between his family's arms business and a machining business he later opened, he was able to put about $5 million into developing the weapon.

"The market now is not in shotguns; there's a market in handguns because that's a billion-dollar market," Mossberg continued. "We're going to jump to the handgun as soon as we raise enough money to do that... but we're tapped out."

Smart gun
iGun Technology Corp.

The circuit board inside the iGun's stock is from iGun Technology Corp., also the weapon's maker. The processor recognizes a signal from an RFID chip in a shooter's ring and unlocks the gun's trigger.

Pushback against smart guns is common from some gun owners and advocacy groups. The fear is two-fold. For one, gun owners are concerned that adding technology to a weapon's time-tested functionality could cause the gun to fail when it's most needed. Second, there's fear that once smart guns are available, states and the federal government will mandate them. That fear is not without merit.

The smart-gun development community, however, is virtually in unison in decrying government mandates for their technology. Mossberg and other say smart guns are not for everyone, nor do they fit every purpose. For example, while smart-gun technology may save a police officer or soldier from having their weapon used against them, a hunter has little need of a fingerprint scanner or radio frequency identification (RFID) chip in his weapon.

When it comes to the technology affecting reliability, Mossberg understands that some smart guns will be more reliable than others. But with the right technology -- especially today's advanced microelectronics -- they can be just as reliable as any standard weapon.

smart guns iGun Technology Corp.

The iGun ring with an RFID chip. An LED light in the stock shows when the weapon is locked or unlocked.

"I came from the gun industry. I know what reliability means. I'm a gun owner. I'm an NRA member. A gun needs to work when you need it to work. You don't want to swipe your fingerprint and have it say, 'Please try again.'" Mossberg said. "My goal with my engineers was to build a gun as reliable as the most reliable gun in the world, which was the Mossberg Model 500."

For the iGun, Mossberg chose a ring with an RFID chip in it to send a signal to a circuit board in the shotgun. The RFID uses a low magnetic frequency that requires a shooter's hand to be properly oriented to the gun's trigger, and the chip transmits its low-frequency signal only a couple of millimeters. Once someone wearing the ring grabs the shotgun, the circuit board activates two tiny motors that unlock the trigger. The entire process takes less than a quarter of a second, Mossberg said.

The company's first ring was the size of a Superbowl ring -- in other words, huge. But now, "with this current chip... we're talking technology that's now the size of a grain of rice. There's no electricity. There's a battery in the ring. It's waterproof," he said.

Mossberg said his iGun shotgun is only a prototype and his goal is to create a line of smart pistols.

In 2013, Mossberg's iGun won a first place innovator's award from the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, an organization founded by Silicon Valley angel investor Ron Conway for the purpose of promoting gun safety technology. From a $1 million kitty, the Foundation awarded Mossberg a $100,000 development grant. Along with Mossberg, the Foundation has awarded 15 development grants to innovators, such as Tom Lynch who put a fingerprint scanner on an AR-15 assault rifle, Robert McNamara whose guns also use RFID chip technology, Omer Kiyani, who created a biometric gun lock and Kai Kloepfer.

Kloepfer, who founded Biofire Technologies, began developing his smart gun four years ago when he was only 15. Two years ago, his fingerprint-reading smart gun won the Colorado teen a $50,000 grant from the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation. Prior to that, he'd also won top honors for his smart-gun engineering project at the 2013 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, where he was one of only 34 award recipients out of seven million high school students who entered from around the globe.

The 19-year-old is now a freshman at MIT, and he recently completed his latest prototype of a fingerprint reader embedded in a semi-automatic pistol; this one uses a Glock Model 22 .40 caliber handgun. Kloepfer inserted the stamp-sized fingerprint reader into the gun's hand grip; a circuit board and lithium polymer battery allow the sensor to read pre-authorized fingerprints and unlock the gun.

smart guns
Biofire Technologies

A prototype weapon from Biofire Technologies shows the circuit board embedded in the pistol grip.

The fingerprint sensor is ergonomically placed at the top of the handgrip. When a right index finger is inserted into the pistol's trigger guard, the hand's middle finger naturally comes to rest atop the fingerprint reader.

But it was Kloepfer's unlocking mechanism that made his smart gun unique among others. It uses a special wire -- an actuator-shaped memory alloy -- that when heated via a command from the gun's circuit board, contracts and unlocks the trigger mechanism. There are no motors, which would require a lot more of handgun's tiny real estate.

smart gun
Biofire Technologies

The fingerprint reader on an early prototype from Biofire Technologies.

A USB port on the bottom on the handgun can be used to charge the weapon's lithium-ion battery, which Kloepfer said should last at least a year.

An early prototype of the weapon can be seen in this YouTube video posted last year.

Along with perfecting the electronic-mechanical interface, Kloepfer's greatest challenge to date has been reducing the time it takes the for gun to unlock -- currently 1.5 seconds. "I expect to see that decrease to under half a second on a production model," he said.

Smart guns
Biofire Technologies

The trigger actuator mechanism in one of Kai Kloepfer's early prototypes.

Unlike many of the smart guns produced in the mid- to late-2000s and that used decade-old processors and other outdated technology, today's weapons are taking advantage of the latest microprocessors and biometrics readers. For example, Kloepfer's fingerprint reader comes from Fingerprint Cards AB, a Swedish tech company whose biometrics are used in Google's new Pixel smartphones, and the circuit board sports an ARM Cortex A4 processor.

"We're not talking about electronics that launch men up to the space station or Mars or even in an everyday airplane with a few hundred people on board," said Margot Hirsch, president of the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation. "We're talking about ruggedizing and miniaturizing electronics, but not under as rigorous conditions as we see in other markets. This technology is not new."

Hirsch pointed out that no one smart gun technology is going to fit all gun owners' needs. For example, police and military who often wear gloves may not choose an embedded fingerprint reader that would fit the bill for a home defense weapon.

"I think a gun owner would pick a smart gun technology depending on the purpose of the gun," she said. "Think of this in relation to when the Apple iPhone first came out. The first generation of smart guns will appeal to those who are comfortable with the new technology. Then there's going to be a segment of the market who'll not be comfortable."

However, the technology most likely has a place in a nation that allows millions of citizens to own a firearm legally. For example, suicides are the leading cause of firearm death and most often those guns are owned by a family member or friend. If those firearms had biosensors, their use could be limited.

Smart gun

A smart-shotgun prototype from TriggerSmart, a company founded by Tom Lynch, who won a $100,00 grant from the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation. The smart gun uses the latest RFID and wireless technologies, and only a shooter wearing a corresponding ring can fire the weapon.

Hirsch, whose fiancé owns a gun, refuses to buy one herself because like Mossberg's daughter she's "terrified" it could be wrestled away from her by an attacker. "If there were smart guns, I'd probably own a gun because I'd never be concerned it would be used against me," she said.

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    17 hours ago
    I've met some sick individuals, but the Anonymous guy below who thinks kid deaths are to be ignored unless they come from guns may be at the top of the list.

    Folks, beware anonymous posters. It may be this daft sicko.
    3 days ago
    posting response
    The issues really are political more than technological. Considering that there are states with laws that prohibit the sale of "dumb guns" once the "smart" ones are on the market (like the 2002 "New Jersey Smart Gun Law"). And a "smart" gun can still be used against the owner --  by use of their biometrics or just being in proximity to the RFID/NFC chip.

    2 days ago
    Ken Z
    The should outlaw swimming pools instead. Far more young children die from drowning and suffer serious injury in backyard swimming pools than by guns--by far.

    "350 children under the age of five drown in pools each year nationwide."
    "Another 2,600 children are treated in hospital emergency rooms each year for near-drowning incidents. Some of these submersion accidents result in permanent brain damage."

    So what is more dangerous for young children, guns or swimming pools?
    1 day ago
    When a nutcase walks into a school and attacks a group of kids with a swimming pool, be sure to let us know. 
    23 hours ago
    Not that you haven't thought about it...
    23 hours ago
    Wow, sick burn there big shot.  Absolutely REKT. 
    23 hours ago
    Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you were the Anonymous whose been insulting me. Which one are you again?

    While we're on the subject, it is tragic when mentally deranged sickos (like that other Anonymi) do things like open fire on kids. However, pools are indeed dangerous.

    http://www.momsteam.com/sports/swimming/safety/grim-statistics-on-child-drownings says that 350 kids tragically drown each year.

    School shootings, thank God, account for a much smaller number.

    So I'm going to side with Ken Z here and agree that pools have to go. It makes a lot more sense than any sort of weapons ban which would have amuch smaller beneficial effect.

    And I'm really sorry about getting you mixed up with the spineless, rock-throwing worm who also posts as Anonymous. I feel really bad.

    Is there any way to distinguish yourself as different?
    22 hours ago
    I'd classify drowning as an accident.  I don't think a school shooting\mass shooting classifies as an accident at all. 
    20 hours ago
    So your saying kids' lives don't matter unless they're taken by accident.

    20 hours ago
    Oops, I meant to say that you're saying kids' lives don't matter unless they are victims of violent crime. My mistake.

    Please. Get some help.
    19 hours ago
    Never said at all kids lives didn't matter.  Kids lives do matter.  You are comparing apples and oranges. 

    Since I work in Public Safety and have some experience in this matter, I'll elaborate for since you seem to be having trouble distinguishing the difference. 

    Kids drowning in the pool is labeled as an accident, legally, unless the parents themselves are the ones holding the kids under the water. 

    Kids dying because a nutcase went to their school and opened fire on them is not an accident.  Is legally declared a homicide. 

    Are you seriously that daft of an individual?  You might want to look up definitions next time before you attempt to have a discussion on something like this. 
    5 days ago
    Bill Wicks
    An idea that has no merit and is unneeded. I want anyone in my house from my 5 year granddaughter to my 85 yr old father to be able to use it should the need ever arise. An EMP wipes out the weapons usefulness, or the battery died or even better the Lithium ion battery cooks off all the rounds in the magazine at once.  It is easy, teach your kids every gun is loaded and to respect same as with power equipment or anything that can be dangerous. Take your kids out shooting and hunting. Seeing a meddlesome cotton tail or woodchuck explode before your eyes gets the point across.  If they ever are perfected the pressure will be on to mandate them, not only from the nutty Democrats who want to take our rights away, but also from the venture capitalists and investors who would love another mandated boondoggle like obamacare to line their pockets with.  I like my weapons to work when required, not see a low battery light blinking.
    5 days ago
    Henry Harle
    "Kids are living on their cell phones; reliability of the circuits boards are not an issue with them. The cops love the product," 
    Are you kidding me? Police Love Them? What police? Where? How many police departments are lining up to exchange their old guns for them? I would be willing to bet the answer is NONE.  I never once heard a police officer say "Gee I wish the dept would switch out these old ultra reliable Glocks or Sigs or S&W pistols for the new digital models".  When I start seeing LE and military using them I will think about it. Until then, Forget It 
    5 days ago
    I have no problem with the technology being used in firearms if they are simply one of many options on the market.  Unfortunately, governments such as the State of New Jersey have laws on the books mandating that us regular peons will be only be allowed to purchase smart guns while military and law enforcement get to keep purchasing and using traditional reliable firearms (law enforcement was specifically exempted in New Jersey because the police union lobbied for an exemption).  That is where all the smart gun tech goes to hell.  The President has pushed for them but even the Secret Service does not want them for their own use.  Smart firearms basically break the KISS principal: Keep It Simple Stupid.  The simpler a mechanical device is, the more reliable it will be.  The more parts that can go wrong the more the reliability drops off.  How many people have a 100% perfect iPhone whose finger print reader works every time and does not occasionally crash due to an app problem?  (Don't all raise your hands so fast LOL)  Expect that kind of reliability in a smart gun.
    5 days ago
    Ken Z
    The eventual criminalization of the aiblity for one to protect him/her self by means of the 2nd amendment. Another step in the wrong direction for our society.

    Criminals do not follow the law--they can get whatever kinds of guns they want to get.

    Creating overbearing and/or restrictive laws which have the effect of preventing or diminishing law abiding citizens from protecting themselves and/or their families and loved ones is dead wrong.
    5 days ago
    Ken Z
    Another brain-dead idea of using technology where it clearly does not belong.
    Situation 1 - I want or need somebody else to be able to discharge my gun at a moments notice--immediately.
    Situation 2 - I need to discharge the gun, but the tech fails, dead battery, wet conditions, accidently dropped it, whatever.
    Situation 3 - I need to discharge my gun and I am wearing gloves because it is 12 below zero.

    Seriously folks, do we need to go on with this??
    The smart gun is absolutely stupid concept.

    Nothing is smarter than a gun the works reliably for the person who is holding it.
    Unfortunately there are some stupid folks who hold them, but this is not the guns fault.
    A gun has no conscience.

    Yea, we know. Guns are dangerous. Of course they are and they should be.
    5 days ago
    The enforcement of existing laws would remove a boatload of guns off of the streets. Most people packing in the bad part of town are ex-cons who are barred by law from having a gun.

    The stat I never see is how many people die from guns which are illegally used. If that's a high number, then what good is making them even more illegal going to do?
    2 days ago
    Isn't about making them illegal.  It's about making a better vetting process to make it less easy to obtain a gun by anybody.  Very similar to how the Cons want to vet refugees into their country because of their appearance/religion makes people think they are probably a terrorist. 
    2 days ago
    "It's about making a better vetting process to make it less easy to obtain a gun by anybody."

    And therein lies the problem. Any talk like this begins with "Okay, everyone turn in your guns." That just ain't gonna fly in the US. I'm stunned that it flew in Australia.

    BTW, when you're not "Anonymous," what's your handle? I'm sure you won't mind sharing it, assuming you possess a spine.
    2 days ago
    I don't recall anybody asking for guns to be turned in.  I believe the referendum calls for expanded background checks and mental health checks for gun sales moving forward.  Why are you concerned with my handle?  Did your parents in life name you Trapper John? 
    2 days ago
    It's a service to you. There are some serious tr0lls running around here hiding behind "Anonymous." Your own brilliant insights might be misconstrued as the rants of one of these poor, disturbed folk. Do you want to be identified as a tr0ll?

    "the referendum calls forexpanded background checks and mental health checks for gun sales moving forward."

    Sure, make it tough for scumbags to get guns. Agree 100% with you. But did you read my original question about how many people are killed by guns that are illegal?

    How about treating ex-cons illegally using guns as three-time losers, and locking them away for life? In other words, *enforce* laws which are not being currently enforced?
    2 days ago
    Horatio J
    I just wish the govt had more oversight on the concealed carry classes. I had one taught by a retired DA and it was a joke, they passed several people that failed the shooting test. The written test was actually done in groups with no instructor present.

    Also, just ignore trapper_john, he actually tries to get people to give out their account name for other websites like a weird obsessed stalker.

    It's a good thing people can own guns for protection (in the US anyways). 
    2 days ago
    Horatio J, do you not get tired of hearing from Anonymous with opinions all over the map? Respond top one, another responds, is it the same one?

    Hats off to you for identifying yourself. Had you trashed me as Anonymous, you would have been subjected to a rather unflattering reply.
    1 day ago

    Problem is that even law enforcement can't keep track of the guns they have now.  They could be on the streets, they could be in some nut jobs shed waiting for the end of world, they could be sold to ISIS.  We simply do not know. 

    Sir, personally don't care what you identify me as.  I certainly won't lose sleep over it.

    Horatio, I concur.  The entire concealed weapon process needs a serious overhaul.  It is something that desperately needs to adjust to the times.  I'm also pretty firm of the belief that since there are a lot of guns out there, we need even more guns out there to "protect ourselves."  To me that just sounds like marketing speak from gun manufacturers and the NRA. 

    2 days ago
    Ken Z
    Anon, what are you smoking? Whatever it is you need to stop and put it down now. Get yourself into a good program and get some help. This conversation is entirely about centralizing the control and use of guns. The only problem with this approach is that criminals do not follow the law.

    The important point to make is this is about patents, control, restrictions, monopoly, the law, and big money. Far higher costs of goods and services. It has nothing to do with safety. It is being marketed as safety measure but has nothing to do with safety. Particularly the safety of someone trying to protect themselves.

    Step 1: Put computer in gun to limit how it can be used. All of the problems that go along for the ride and put the user at risk of having a gun that will not function properly.

    ..and then we go here...

    Step 2: Connect gun to a system to report usage, wear, sensors, update firmware, provide other "cool and useful features", none of which are actually needed for reliable use. Require owner to periodically connect gun to remote system for verification, updates, etc. whatever, else it will STOP FUNCTIONING by design after expiration time. This could be wireless or direct connect, whatever, who cares we don't need it.

    Step 3: Add an undocumented and proprietary backdoor that allows the vendor, or another third party, government etc. whoever, to disable the firearm.

    Step 4: We could add smart bullets that need to be registered to a single gun, they would not be usable in any other gun. More cost and more restrictions.

    And then, the FINAL step is to require all guns operate in what I have described above, for the good of society. ....Again, the criminals could care less because they won't be using these guns.

    It all leads to less control, more limitations and far more restrictions for law abiding citizens--along with added costs and hassles. The gun vendors and service providers will make a killing, so to speak.

    Guns don't need to be physically turned in if they can be disabled from afar or via mandated check-in period. That is where we are going with this, it has nothing to do with safety, but it will be marketed and pushed as such.

    Pull your head out!

    5 days ago
    Ted Bogucki
    What an awesome way to get people killed.   What happens if the battery dies or if you are wearing gloves.  or if the weapon get wet    Maybe you can throw it at the person trying to kill you.

    A shooting incident only lasts 5 to 10 minutes.    The person you are trying to stop will not wait for you to get ready for the attack

    The smart  weapons are useless until they can make the weapon recognize the owner with out any battery or electronics that can fail.   Who cares if a smart phone battery dies on you.   If the weapon you are trying to use dies then so do YOU.

    5 days ago
    Yep, this idea needs to go in the same dumpster as where the most ironically named  "Affordable Health Care" should have gone.
    5 days ago
    You say: "A shooting incident only lasts 5 to 10 minutes.  "   More likely that an "incident" will last only a fraction of a minute, if that.  Presentation of threat, assessment, presentation of weapon... response.  About as long as it takes to read that sentence is how long the whole event may last.  A technology that introduces a delay of even a fraction of a second is unneeded and unwanted. 
    If the adult daughter of an industry icon is afraid to have a gun because she is afraid that a perp may use it against her, then the family education funds were wasted on Liberal education.  This is an education and training issue, NOT a technology issue. It is a solution looking for a problem.  It is dangerous and it will get people killed if it is employed on a large scale. 

    2 days ago
    Don Wilson
    All of you folks think you are Rambo, constantly ready to assess the situation and jump in and stop the bad guys with perfect accuracy. I guess none of you have family members or have kids over that might be endangered by having weapons around. I am aware of an incident near where I live where a hunter fell out of a tree stand and his rifle discharged and shot him. He didn't survive. Why are you so opposed to people having a choice for safer guns? Many thousands die yearly, especially children in firearms accidents. Also wouldn't it be nice if it was more difficult for stolen guns to be used by criminals?
    2 days ago
    "I guess none of you have family members or have kids over that might be endangered by having weapons around."

    I'm not a member of the NRA, nor really a fan. But they have long spread the word that guns *must* be kept away from unsupervised kids. When this admonition is ignored, very bad things happen.

    My father kept his guns locked away from us kids. And while I didn't have guns in the house when I had kids, if I had, they would certainly have been secured away as well.

    "Also wouldn't it be nice if it was more difficult for stolen guns to be used by criminals?"

    It certainly would. But not with this half-baked smart gun technology. No siree.
    2 days ago
    Don Wilson
    I'm not a member of the NRA, nor really a fan. But they have long spread the word that guns *must* be kept away from unsupervised kids. When this admonition is ignored, very bad things happen.

    I totally agree with this. If you just have guns for hunting it works fine to keep them in a safe. The problem is if you want to keep a gun by your bed or elsewhere for self defense there is a big danger for your household. Statistics show that it is much more likely that someone in your family will be shot than stopping some intruder. It may depend on where you live, but you are probably a lot safer to have an alarm system, and/or a dog. Also, unless well trained like police, military, etc... many people make poor decisions in a panic situation and may shoot their own family member when there really isn't even an intruder.
    2 days ago
    "but you are probably a lot safer to have an alarm system, and/or a dog."

    I agree with that, too. I would hope that shooting an intruder with a gun would be the final course of action arrived upon after much deliberation. Even if it's a righteous shoot, you will now be submitted to a court of enquiry, both a legal; one, and one in the much larger court of public opinion.

    However, if it's the correct decision, then it should be done as quickly as possible.
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