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Intelligent Machines

Police in California and Texas Test Networked Guns

A chip that tracks how a police officer’s gun is being used could prove useful in investigations and court cases.

More than 30,000 people die from gunshots each year in the United States.

When a police officer draws a firearm he or she often doesn’t have an opportunity to radio for backup.

YardArm’s wireless chip, which fits into the handle of a handgun, is shown to the right.

YardArm, a California-based company, is building technology that will automatically alert headquarters in such situations. The company makes a chip that goes into the handle of a regular firearm and transmits data over a cell-phone network connection. The data transmitted includes the location of a gun and whether it has been unholstered or discharged. The company is also working to track the direction in which a gun is pointing. The data can be fed to a police dispatch system or viewed on a smartphone.

Founded in 2013, YardArm started out making a consumer product for monitoring a firearm’s location. But since many American gun owners object to technology or policies aimed at regulating firearms, it did not find many customers.

“You have a social demand for smart gun technology, but not necessarily a market demand,” says Jim Schaff, YardArm’s vice president of marketing. “As a consumer product, it’s going to be a long road.”

Gun owners didn’t flock to YardArm, but law enforcement remained interested. Technology that tracks officers’ action is slowly gaining acceptance as police chiefs and officers realize that the data can help clear them of wrongdoing and save litigation costs. Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly common for many ordinary objects and devices to come with Internet connectivity.

This schematic shows the YardArm chip slotted into the handle of a Glock handgun.

The gun industry is gradually taking notice of these trends. The gunmaker Beretta already offers the i-Protect, a sensor that goes on the front of the gun and captures data on the weapon’s use. Meanwhile Taser, which makes a gun that delivers a nonlethal electric shock, also sells head-worn cameras to help police and security workers document events in the field.

“Dash-cams really set precedent,” Schaff says. “When it comes down to it, monitoring technology helps more than it hurts.”

YardArm is holding tests to hone the tracking accuracy with police departments in Santa Cruz, California, and Carrollton, Texas. The technology has been tested at firing ranges, but not during active police duty.

“It is going so well we don’t even know it’s there,” says Santa Cruz sheriff Phil Wowak. “The product brings so much data that we’re going to have to figure out how to respond to every element.”

Yardarm plans to start selling the hardware and tracking service in mid-2015. The next goal is to capture the direction in which a gun was fired, but Schaff says this aspect of the technology needs to be improved. And despite the rebuff, YardArm has not given up on consumers. “We absolutely believe there’s a market of consumers perfectly happy deploying the technology,” Schaff says.

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