Even The Most Determined Addict Can’t Break Into This Tamper-Proof Pill Dispenser

With a fingerprint scanner and internal clock, it gives you the exact number of drugs your doctor says.

If you fancy an extra painkiller, one more than what your prescription will allow, good luck breaking into this pill dispenser. It’s tamper-proof and set only to give out pills according to the timetable set by your doctor.


Developed by mechanical engineering students at Johns Hopkins University, the pill-safe–which is meant to stop overdoses–has a fingerprint scanner and an internal clock. It’s set by pharmacists, who keep the key after handing over the device to patients.

“It’s kind of an upgrade to the pill dispenser that is currently on the market, the one that you get from the pharmacy,” says Megan Carney, one of the students. “We saw other ones online were made of plastic and had one regular padlock on them. If you used enough force and had the right tool, you could break into it.”

Carney and her fellow classmates Joseph Hajj, Joseph Heaney and Welles Sakmar developed the device for their final year project at JHU under the guidance of their “client,” Andrea Gielen, director of the university’s Center for Injury Research and Policy. “She works with a lot of people who [at risk from overdoses]. We thought about making something physical that might solve this problem,” Carney says.

The 9.25-inch tube is made of the same steel alloy used in aircraft landing gear. When it detects a fingerprint match, it rotates a disc inside which pushes out a pill from a spring-loaded cartridge. The students envisage the dispenser being used for addictive drugs like OxyContin, though they tested it with Tylenol, which has roughly the same dimensions. It holds 60 tablets.

The four students, all 22, have now graduated and are on their way to other jobs (Carney is working for Lockheed Martin). But Gielen hopes to keep the project going with a new batch of students. “She has been trying to talk the [National Institutes of Health] to get funding to continue with it, with other engineers,” Carney says. “There’s a need for more prototypes before it’s ready for the market.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.