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Biometric Pistols Could Improve Airline Security

Although the thought makes some experts and airline industry security insiders uncomfortable, one way to improve airline security is to have more armed air marshals on board. The fear is that weapons would be on board with the possibility that would-be hijackers would develop tactics to identify and overpower the marshals and take away their weapons. As things stand, this tactic woud be considered easier than smuggling weapons through check points equipped with sophisticated technology.

What to do? The U.S. government gave the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) $2 million to develop a commercially viable smart gun. These new firearms would recognize its owner's grip. If the gun was seized by an unauthorized person (or an unrecognized hand) – the gun would lock its shooting mechanism. The gun relies on Dynamic Grip Recognition (DGR), a biometric technology embedded in the gun's handle. With DGR, sensors and microprocessors analyze the interplay of bones and muscles involved in pulling the trigger, all in a fraction of a second.

Donald Sebastian, vice president for research and development at NJIT, says: "The way you hold a gun, curl your fingers, contract your hand muscles as you pull the trigger -- all of those measurements are unique." The current failure rate of the smart gun is 1 in 100 trigger pulls (not encouraging, but early in the process). The NJIT team aims to improve this rate to 1 in 10,000 by increasing the number of grip sensors from thirty-two to "hundreds" and further refining the pattern-recognition software. A commercial version is expected by 2008.


This has a long way to go before it becomes viable, and is way too complex to be reliable soon. A false negative (i.e. the gun doesn't fire when it should) rate of anything worse than 1 in 10,000 any one shot is unacceptable. A false positive rate worse than 1 in 10,000 is equally unacceptable. Getting them both within spec is a real tough problem. It will be very, very difficult to get this technology to be fully reliable.

A much easier solution, cheaper, and more reliable would be to build a small RF scanner into the grip, and to implant a small microchip into the hand of the gun-owner. For ambidextrous shooters, a chip in each hand would be required.

These chips are getting really small, and would make a nearly foolproof system. Yes you could circumvent it, but it's not something that you could easily do in the course of a confrontation.

Hardware and software would be orders of magnitude simpler than biometric scanning. The problem of different "grips" for different shooting situations would be solved (and during a law-enforcement shootout, when the officer was under considerable stress, I think it's likely his grip might not match what was recorded in a target-practice session).

And it is a much more flexible solution, as the scanner could be programmed to authorize a shot from a range of chip IDs, or could be programmed to also require a PIN entry every day by the authorized user of the weapon.

We've been working on automatic biometric identification for a long, long time, and we are still a very long way from having a system that works right the first time, every time.

Just my $.02

Dave: Many of the technologies that are bandied about in the press including biometrics, RFID chips and others have a "long way to go." The recent revelations that the RFID chip for the e-passport had been cloned is a perfect example of this.

So, to clarify. My purpose in putting a spotlight on one technology or another is not to suggest that it is a "solution" to a homeland security problem, but to increase readers' awareness that such technologies are out there and are being worked on.

I'll probably mention a few more in the days and weeks to come.

Thanks, Jay, for clarifying...

And as far as implanted RFID chips are concerned, that, too, has a long way to go. However, it is a simpler technology and thus more likely to be successful in the long run.

I look forward to your future posts on the new/developing tech front.