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AI-Powered Weapon Detectors to Undergo Testing in Utah

New technology developed by MIT Lincoln Laboratory creates 3-D images by scanning passersby with low-frequency radio waves, then applies deep learning to analyze anything that looks like a weapon.

After four years in development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory, a new surveillance technology that makes 3-D images using radio waves has found its testing ground in the state of Utah.

According to an announcement from weapons detection company Liberty Defense, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes has signed a memorandum of understanding to allow beta testing of the new device, called Hexwave, at public events across the state. While the MOU involves no financial commitment from Utah or specific locations for testing Hexwave, potential venues include sporting events, concerts, schools, churches, government buildings, parks and festivals.

Liberty Defense CEO Bill Riker described Hexwave as an array of mobile panels, approximately 5 or 6 feet tall, which emit a low-frequency radio signal that passes through certain materials but reflects off others. Each panel can then receive these reflections and use deep learning to analyze the resulting 3-D images, identifying the shape of firearms, knives, pyrotechnics, bottles or other suspicious-looking objects, metallic or otherwise.

While this is not, in principle, that different from security scanners seen at public events already, Riker said the innovation is in Hexwave’s deep-learning capabilities and unobtrusive function.

“The key aspect of this system is that it’s real-time, active 3-D imaging,” he said. “You don’t have to stop or pause while you’re walking through the detection space.”

Riker said engineering and design teams in Atlanta are still working on the prototype, which is due in July. After alpha testing on the underlying technology is complete, Hexwave will undergo beta testing in late fall and early 2020, with a redesign expected to go into production by summer 2020.

Beta testing will depend on consent and involvement of specific event organizers, but Riker said the Utah attorney general’s interest in high-tech, adaptable public security is already forward-looking.

“I think there’s the opportunity to take a leadership role in looking at this type of capability across multiple venues. I think they also like the flexibility of the deployment of the system. Essentially you buy one system that could be deployed across the security space in lots of different places,” he said. “This is a leading indicator of where things could go. State governments are identifying the opportunity, and it could be multiple products. The main thing is, there’s proactive effort in trying to enable that kind of security system to be deployed.”

Speaking for the Utah attorney general’s office, Chief of Staff Ric Cantrell said that when beta testing starts, whether or not people will be privy to the fact they’re being scanned may depend on venue staff. But while the MOU with Liberty Defense is purely exploratory, he said, the sheer pace and volume of technological innovations in the private sector require that governments be curious and proactive about them.

“It’s a general problem of, how do you provide safety for large crowds in large venues? If magnetometers are not the answer, do you have something that’s quicker, that’s more innovative, that’s less intrusive, that protects constitutional freedoms?” he said. “These tools exist and technology is exploding, we have a thousand new possibilities we didn’t have 10 years ago, so as law enforcement officials I think it behooves us to take a look.”

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.