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Police Are Testing Smart Guns That Track When, Where, And How They’re Fired

Sensor-equipped guns could reveal when police officers fire at inappropriate times–or at the wrong people.

Fatal police shootings are at a 20-year high; cops committed 461 “justifiable homicides” in 2013. Among the total of police homicides tallied this year will be Michael Brown, the black teenager in Ferguson killed by white police officer Darren Wilson. Whether this shooting was justifiable or not is what a grand jury will decide any day now.

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A California startup is now starting trials of technology that could have helped in many cases where accounts differ over what exactly happened with a gun.


Simply put, Yardarm Technologies outfits guns with inconspicuous, small sensors that can report back and send real-time alerts on a lot of data: the officer’s location, when a gun is removed from a holster, and exactly when and where it’s fired. Eventually, the company plans to also report on other telemetry data that could be key pieces of evidence, like the angle at which a gun was aimed when fired.

“We would maintain a record of what happened with the weapon,” says Yardarm Vice President of Marketing Jim Schaff.

Right now, police departments in Santa Cruz County, California, and Carrollton, Texas, are working with Yardarm to test the technology in 90-day trials. First, Yardarm will simply receive and analyze encrypted data from officers’ guns (via the sensors’ Bluetooth or radio connection with officers’ smartphones or other devices). Next, they’ll work on feeding the data back to the police department and setting up alert systems that could, say, notify officers in the neighborhood when another officer fires a gun. In the last phase, they’ll work to integrate their systems with police dispatchers. If all goes well, the system could be more widely adopted, just as a number of police departments have started using body-worn cameras to help track the stories of officers and the people with whom they interact.

The company wants to make sure it can correctly analyze the data before it provides more complicated measures, such as the angle a gun is fired. “If you have a Fitbit and you lose 100 steps a day, who cares? If you have a shooting in Ferguson, and I’m telling you this is the direction he aimed, and I’m off by 15%, that’s a big deal,” says Schaff.

Co-founder Robert Stewart previously was part of a company that put hardware in luggage to help airlines’ track them when they’re lost. After Sandy Hook, like other new “smart gun” startups, he thought about putting the same electronics in guns, so private owners could be alerted if someone else was handling the gun. But then the first news article was published about their idea. “The very first comment on [the] article was, in all caps, “I HOPE YOU DIE,” says Schaff. “We sort of knew it was going to be controversial, but man, it was pretty aggressive.”

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So the company shifted gears to market smarter guns for police officers, private security firms, and even militaries and SWAT teams. Of the consumer market, Schaff says: “There’s a social desire for technology like this, but there isn’t a huge market desire.”

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire

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