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Upcoming Product Promises to Detect Weapons Via Wi-Fi

Canadian company First Responder Technologies seeks to give schools, places of worship and other institutions an inexpensive and accurate method of identifying deadly weapons before tragedy strikes.

Airport Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi — usually associated with Internet connectivity — might soon have another use: detecting guns and knives before they can be used to kill people. That’s the idea behind a product in development by First Responder Technologies, a Vancouver, B.C.-based company. 

The product, which is expected to cost less than $10,000, will be a pair of posts, or bollards, that have Wi-Fi antennas embedded in them. The posts will create a virtual fence between each other that can detect dangerous metal objects in bags around the perimeter of a premises, ideally before the individual carrying the weapon wreaks havoc on the place they’re entering. 

Once the system detects a suspicious object, it will send an alarm to the computer or phone of a first responder or local security agent so that the individual carrying the weapon can be apprehended or so that location-specific security procedures, such as the automatic locking of doors, can be initiated. 

Currently, the product analyzes what is known as channel state information to detect metal. The company is still working on a way to produce “good enough” images so that the system can better sense the difference between, say, the barrel of a rifle and an umbrella, said company CEO Robert Delamar. The final product will not generate high-quality 3-D pictures but will use machine learning for improved detection.

Delamar said his company is aiming to have a prototype ready by May. The product will be tested by schools, police departments and other organizations in various countries, including the U.S. Delamar said he could not reveal any more details about when and where the testing will take place, but he did give an example of a situation the product could address. 

“I’m thinking specifically of the Las Vegas massacre in the fall of 2018,” Delamar said. “Remember, that gentleman brought in multiple duffel bags filled with long guns. And it would be those posts that hopefully would prevent someone like that from carrying a gun into a premises concealed in a bag. That’s the kind of use case that we would be solving for.” 

Delamar added that the product will also be able to detect handguns and large knives. The latter object type is being addressed due to a multitude of machete and knife attacks in the United Kingdom in recent years. 

Smaller metal objects will not be specifically targeted by the product. 

“Your paperclips, your nail files, your small scissors, even smaller knives may not be detected by the system,” Delamar said. “That’s designed on purpose. The goal is to have good enough detection that detects the most obvious harms.”

Delamar said the posts will be easy to install and will not require any Internet connectivity. 

The research behind the product started in 2017, said electrical and computer engineering professor Yingying Chen, who works with a team on the product at Rutgers University. Chen and a number of other researchers produced a peer-reviewed paper in 2018 titled “Towards In-Baggage Suspicious Object Detection Using Commodity WiFi.” The study won the Best Paper award at the IEEE Conference on Communications and Network Security. 

According to a Rutgers press release about the study, experiments showed that Wi-Fi could accurately detect dangerous objects 99 percent of the time. However, the accuracy rate slipped to 90 percent when concealed objects were also wrapped in material. Delamar said the goal of current research and development is to make detection more accurate, though he could not reveal any new information about accuracy rates beyond that. 

In addition to detection of firearms and large knives, the research initially focused on detection of explosives. Such a possibility is not off the table for First Responder Technologies, but the company’s focus is currently elsewhere. 

“It’s just not on the road map right now,” Delamar said. “Because the point is people aren’t blowing up schools; they’re shooting them.”

Other emerging technologies for detecting deadly weapons exist. For instance, there is Hexwave, a product from the company Liberty Defense that uses radio waves to produce 3-D images of concealed deadly weapons in real time. But Delamar said Wi-Fi is both cheap and ubiquitous and may not involve as much regulation. 

“Commercial Wi-Fi uses unlicensed spectrum, and as long as we’re utilizing pre-certified chipsets and components, then we should ... not (be) required to have a government license to deploy the system,” Delamar said. 

Chen said the research challenge now is getting the product to the point where the size and shape of objects can be identified. She also cited a significant advantage of using Wi-Fi for security: participants aren’t required to do anything outside of their normal behavior for detection to occur. 

On the subject of privacy, Delamar said First Responder Technologies is sympathetic to concerns about technology intruding into people’s lives. The product is intended to only detect certain metallic objects and won’t lead to very sharp images of people’s personal belongings

Additionally, the company views the product as a first step in detecting a potential harm. If a weapon is detected, Delamar said that would establish probable cause in a setting where such objects are banned. 

“You get good enough security and the preservation of privacy and a probable cause … that allows for potentially more invasive surveillance once that probable cause (i.e., the presence of a weapon) has been determined,” Delamar said. “So it’s a nice trade-off. It’s the kind of trade-off that you want to live with in a democracy.”

However, in an article from Ontario-based publication Windsor Star, Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Brian Beamish was not convinced by the company’s privacy argument. 

“Extra skepticism should be exercised about claims that these law enforcement panaceas will have no impact on personal privacy,” Beamish told the Star.

Delamar added that First Responder Technologies doesn’t offer a stance on gun control. It only wants to deal with unlawful possession of objects. 

The company is fairly new, having been founded in 2017, and it began trading on the Canadian Securities Exchange last month. Its entry into the stock market generated nearly CA$5 million, according to a regulatory filing, but it currently has “no operating income.” The highest share price the company has reached is 39 cents.

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.