My ONE post on gun control

March 17, 2013 Posted by bob in Personal Projects - (Comments Off)

This post is about my attempt at a technological solution to gun problems. I built a working prototype, but ultimately I believe that this is not a solution to the problem of mass shootings. There is no technological solution that will prevent someone who is sufficiently motivated from doing significant harm yet still afford us the freedoms that make us human. However, what I built can help prevent people from harming others with weapons sometimes. It has some legitimate circumstances in which it could be very effective.

Background

I was approached by a guy who recognized my wireless communications skills and proposed an idea to me. He had been thinking since the Sandy Hook shooting about how guns could be made safer, and thought that some kind of token that people wore that could disable weapons would be a great solution. Essentially he wanted to create a movement where people carried these tokens that emitted a disable signal, and he thought that governments could be convinced to mandate that all guns listen for this signal and refuse to fire when the disable signal is detected. That was where we started.

Evolution of the idea

Clearly this idea had problems. First was socio-political. Getting a government to mandate this would be impossible, getting people to trade in their guns would be impossible, preventing gun smuggling would be impossible, and establishing exceptions for military and police would be a loophole filled nightmare that would render the system useless. The next problem was technological. A token that’s always emitting a signal would run out of batteries quickly. A weapon that could automatically disable itself would be tricky. And a system that only deactivates if it hears a deactivate signal can easily be foiled by… aluminum foil. Wrapping the gun in aluminum foil would prevent the signal from reaching the antenna.

It took a lot of back and forth to come to a final solution, and it still has flaws. But we’ll get to that later. And I have no way to address the political or social problems; I’m a technical guy and that is a job for someone else. Here’s what we ended up with:

Solution

 

The four parts: the weapon, enable token, disable token, and plugin disable token.

The four parts: the weapon, enable token, disable token, and plugin disable token.

1) An enable token with a button that emits an ‘enable signal’ repeatedly while it’s turned on. We’re using Bluetooth Low Energy because this is exactly the sort of thing BLE was designed for. Low energy wireless communications. The enable token is paired with the weapon so that only that enable token can enable that particular weapon. This means the weapon will not enable unless the enable token is on, and within range. This prevents people from using stolen weapons, or getting into their parents’ guns, or accidentally firing, and can also prevent a gun from being used against its owner. This enable token alone is what makes this system great. There are far more accidental shootings, shootings with stolen weapons, and attacks against the owner than there are mass shootings, and an enable token paired to a gun would prevent a lot of those. But the enable token also serves another important purpose. Remember how you could just wrap a gun in aluminum foil so it doesn’t get any disable signals? Well if the gun needs to hear an enable signal, it can’t do that while covered in aluminum foil. So the fact that the gun has to hear a signal to enable means it must be capable of hearing a signal to disable.

2) The weapon with a receiver (and optionally a transmitter). The weapon has an electromechanical device that is connected between the safety and the firing mechanism. When the safety is diesngaged, this module is powered on, and when it hears the right enable signal, and no disable signals, it will allow the gun to fire. As soon as it hears a disable signal or stops hearing the enable signal, it will disengage and the weapon will not fire.

3) A disable token that emits a ‘disable signal’ every few seconds. Essentially this beacon says to any specially equipped guns “please don’t fire near me.” Any weapon or enable token within range will immediately disable itself. Another advantage of using Bluetooth Low Energy is that many cell phones are now coming with BLE capability built in, which means eventually a cell phone could be emitting this disable beacon. So people wouldn’t need to carry an additional piece of electronics; it would be an app they could download and run in the background.

4) Finally, a fourth device can plug into a wall and emit a disable signal regularly. It could also be listening for enable signals that would indicate someone is trying to enable a gun. And if the gun were emitting a signal saying “hey, I’m a gun and someone is trying to fire me” it could listen for that as well. It would have a siren and possibly other ways to indicate authorities that a gun was trying to be used in a certain area.

Building

I ordered some fake guns from Amazon, some Bluetooth modules from BlueGiga, and designed some parts for the enclosures. Writing the software for the Bluetooth modules, building the circuits, 3D printing the parts, assembling it all, and testing it, took a relatively short amount of time. A few weeks, really, and that was just in my spare time. It’s only prototypes, so I wouldn’t want to mass produce them the way I built them, but for a working prototype, it works and looks acceptable.

One thing I skipped was designing the electromechanical part that would prevent a gun from firing. I justified this by saying that many guns would be different in their implementation, and I don’t have a real weapon to develop for, and we were trying to prove the wireless concept.

Problems

Here are a few of the problems I ran into.

  • Range: Of course, you’re preventing guns that are within range, not bullets. A gun that is sufficiently far that it doesn’t get a disable signal will still be able to fire INTO an area.
  • Aluminum Foil: It’s still entirely possible to put the enable token INSIDE the aluminum foil surrounding the weapon so that it gets the enable signal and not a disable signal.
  • Timing: A disable signal should be sent infrequently to conserve battery life, prevent collisions, and keep the airwaves mostly clear. But the longer it is the more opportunity to not hear it. A weapon could be enabled and fired in between disable signals. We tried to get around this by disabling for at least five seconds after hearing a disable signal, but if the weapon is turned on, enabled, and fired before the first disable signal reaches it, there’s at least one bullet getting shot. Yes it prevents further shots, but one is enough to do damage. You can see in the video that the gun is enabled briefly before it receives a disable signal.
  • Safety: Usually when a gun is being fired, timing is critical, and having to wait for your gun to enable before you can fire it could mean life or death. That’s why it’s critical that the enable happens immediately every time.
  • Bad guy has a regular gun and a disable token: So he can prevent you from firing, but he is unaffected. Unless the world has 100% adoption of this system, there will be guns that have an edge over other guns, and that makes this system undesirable.
  • Batteries: Yes, it has batteries. Batteries run out. Then you’re in trouble.
  • Gunk: When weapons fire, there’s an explosion, and then powder gets all over the place. On guns it’s really hard to keep this powder from getting all over. Further, there’s not a lot of room in a lot of guns for the firing mechanism to attach to the trigger since it has to wrap around the magazine, so it’s a tiny space that could easily get filled with stuff that could prevent it from working.

Benefits

  • Safety: Guns can only be fired if the enable token is on, which means fewer accidental firings.
  • Theft deterrence: A gun without its enable token is useless, so the owner (who should still be responsible about protecting his gun), can add protection by keeping his enable token separate from his guns.
  • More difficult to misuse guns: It’s not a failsafe system, but it adds a layer of security and challenge that may deter some people.

Conclusions

This is my contribution to the conversation. I built something that has the potential to solve some problems for some people. But after developing and considering the situations in which this might not work, and the motivations behind the gun makers, legislators, gun owners, and gun shooters, this system, and any other like it, has too many holes and challenges to make it a cure-all for gun control. We shouldn’t be applying technology like this to guns because it defeats their purpose and doesn’t solve the real problem that exists with the person holding a weapon.

Post-China update

February 12, 2013 Posted by bob in Uncategorized - (Comments Off)

Yep, I haven’t updated in a while. So what happened in the last year?

  • Went to china to participate in HAXLR8R, the first hardware startup accelerator, which took place in Shenzhen. Read about it here!
  • Came back a few weeks early because I couldn’t get what I needed there, went to San Francisco for demo day and launched a kickstarter project.
  • Demo day was a flop and my kickstarter failed. I just wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t have a team, I was exhausted after China, and I didn’t know how to do media campaigns.
  • I learned my lesson and brought on a couple of co-founders to handle marketing and business development.
  • I learned another lesson about hiring people I’m not completely comfortable with, and was able to fire him before the paperwork was signed making him official.
  • I drove across the country with my girlfriend to go to an amazing wedding and see friends and be with Erin’s family.
  • I continued product development for a long time, making it manufacturable, talking to U.S. factories, jumping through regulatory hoops, getting prototypes in the field with beta testers, and in general making the product and the business awesome.
  • I sent balloons into near space.
  • I have become an expert in many things business and startup related.

And now you’re caught up. :)

I’m going to China!

February 10, 2012 Posted by admin in Uncategorized - (Comments Off)

A couple months ago I applied for a program in its first year for hardware startup companies. Called HAXLR8R, the goal of the program is to make manufacturing in China more accessible to startups by providing workspace and tools and mentors and experts to ten teams for three months in Shenzhen. After those three months, the participants spend a week in San Francisco and give a demo to investors.

I found out recently that I was accepted for my project on the Portable Electronic Scoreboard. I’ve been working on this project for a while, and now is a good time to go to China because I need to take it to production, and this is a great way to do it.

Over the next few months I’ll be updating a new blog that I created called Engineer In Shenzhen, which will have personal posts about what I’m going through, and advice and articles for other people who are interested in the process and what it takes to work in China and outsource manufacturing.

If you want a postcard, make sure I have a current address for you. I’ll try to keep everyone updated with progress as I can.

A Kalahari Christmas

December 28, 2011 Posted by admin in Building | Personal Projects - (Comments Off)

After Erin took me on a ski trip to Salt Lake City for Christmas 2010, I was far behind in the Christmas Karma. For 2011 I planned to take her to a resort in Wisconsin Dells, which is sort of like the Las Vegas of Wisconsin, except with water parks instead of casinos.  Of the many resorts, I decided on Kalahari based on recommendations of others and some research on the web. But just telling her wasn’t a great way to do the presentation. I wanted her to unwrap something.

I’ve been working for a while on a portable electronic scoreboard, so I had all the materials to make a good LED sign with the name. The day before we were to leave for Kansas, I started the project. The idea was to make a big LED sign that said Kalahari on it. It would be battery powered, and a switch would turn it on when the box was opened so that it wasn’t on the entire time and running out of battery. That was as far as I got in planning before I started building.

I borrowed a rechargeable battery from Sector67 to use as the power supply, then laid out the LEDs on a prototyping perf board covered with sticky black nylon paper. It took a couple tries to get it all to fit on the available board with legible letters and decent spacing. Then I found a switch that would work. The circuit was simple. The switch connected the + voltage to the board and the ground went directly to the board. The LEDs were connected with a resistor and two LEDs in series, and all those strings were in parallel. This meant a huge current drain, but I was limited to a power supply with only 6 volts, so I didn’t have much choice. This also meant a LOT of soldering and a lot of current limiting resistors. There was an odd number of LEDs, so I put an extra one on the back side so that the circuits were all the same.

 

With all these LEDs packed into a small space, it was very bright, so I struggled with a few different ways to do the presentation. I ended up taping the board behind a piece of paper so that the paper would diffuse the light a little. It ended up working great. The paper covered everything, including the switch. When the box was closed it was off, and when it was opened the switch was triggered, turning on the sign.

The girlfriend was happy, so the project was a success.

The next time I do something like this I’ll use less LEDs and instead of doing a sign of LEDs I think it would be better to have a piece that had letters cut out and was backlit by only a few LEDs. I also would have spent a lot more time on what was surrounding the sign. Using regular paper and crayon to draw was the best I could do with the limited time and resources I had, but it wasn’t enough for me. Construction took far longer than I expected, and I was a little disappointed with the results. I was working late into the night to solder it all together, and I barely had any time to work on the rest of the package. I can do better.

The Plan

August 4, 2011 Posted by admin in Uncategorized - (Comments Off)

It occurred to me that a lot of people may be out of the loop with what has been and will be happening over the next while. Here’s a short description of the plan:

Erin is going to graduate school in Madison, WI, and I am moving with her.

On July 31 our apartment lease in Richland expired.  On August 15 our apartment lease in Madison begins. For the two weeks in between, we are house-sitting for a friend and storing our stuff in their garage. On August 15 we pack everything up again and begin our 3 day trek across the nation, putting us in Madison on the 17th. We’ll live there for a couple years while she gets a Masters in GIS (Geographic Information Systems).

In anticipation of this move and change in lifestyle, I’ve made quite a few changes already. A few days ago I sold my car; its useful life had was ending and was getting to a point where it would need more and more maintenance and repairs. Since I work from home, and Erin will be taking public transportation in Madison, and parking is expensive, it made sense to only keep her car. In January, I left my job at PNNL to start my own business. I was subcontracting back to the lab for a few months after that to retain some stable income as I built up my own business. I am currently freelancing a little (and open to new work if you have leads), but also working on the portable electronic scoreboard and an automated dog-sitting application. When we move I’ll continue working on them; in fact changing my location doesn’t change a thing about how I do my work other than that my office will soon have better windows.

The Eastern Washington chapter is drawing to a close and the next adventure begins shortly.

Fast Scanner

May 15, 2011 Posted by bob in Building - (Comments Off)

Since I’m moving in a few months to an apartment of significantly reduced size, I am starting to reduce the size of my collection of stuff. One thing I’ve been carrying around is everything from my college career. I have every syllabus, paper, homework assignment, handout, midterm… in total it was three boxes full of binders. This represents tens of thousands of dollars of education, though, and I wasn’t entirely willing to part with it. I started scanning pages with a scanner. I had a process that was giving me up to 6 scans per minute. The quality of the scans was good, but the speed was not fast enough, and there were too many manual parts to the process. I needed something faster.

I realized that a photo of a piece of paper would be faster than having a scanner do it, and if lit well enough and with a good enough lens, it would be just as good as a scanner. I rigged up a tripod with an extended arm to hold my camera, and I put a white background on the desk and marked some lines where the paper needed to be to be in the shot. Since I don’t have a fancy DSLR with a remote, and pressing the button manually was way too much effort and moved the camera around too much, I rigged up a piece of twine so that by pulling down on the twine I could get the camera to take a shot. I tried pulling the string for a while, which was pretty fast, but still not as efficient as possible. I tied the twine to a ruler and used the ruler as a foot pedal, giving me both hands to move the pieces of paper as quickly as possible. The light sources were just regular white compact fluorescent bulbs, placed to put as much light on the paper as evenly as possible.

The resulting contraption bumped my speed up to 15 pages per minute on average. Sometimes it was higher depending on if I was dealing with loose notes or stapled sheets. Having the shutter controlled by my feet gave me a huge advantage, and I was able to fly through all 3 boxes of papers in a few evenings much faster than I expected. Now I have it all on my computer, which should probably still be sorted, but at least it’s not taking up any physical space, and I don’t have to feel any sense of loss when I recycle my stacks of papers.

Four months on my own

May 12, 2011 Posted by bob in Uncategorized - (Comments Off)

It’s been four months since I started on my own. The first weeks were a whirlwind of applications and registrations, some of which are still in process. I’ve been building up projects, finding my niche, and getting used to and developing my processes.

In the beginning I started by reading a lot of books; everything from business law to marketing to general advice on working from home. I feel like I’m getting an MBA by fire, but the stakes are a lot higher than being in school.

Here’s an overview of what I’ve done in the last four months:

  • Registered my business with the WA Secretary of State, the WA Department of Licensing, and filed for an EIN number from the IRS.
  • Applied for a trademark on the WYZGYZ name. I still haven’t heard back about that, but the process takes some time.
  • Set up a business bank account.
  • Set up http://wyzgyz.com.
  • Met with a lawyer
  • Met with an accountant

On the other end of the business, I’ve been involved with quite a few projects:

  • Two contracts back to PNNL to continue to work on projects I was doing when I left. This is my source of income while my other projects are still in development.
  • Volunteer development for the Atomic City Roller Girls. I redesigned their site and have been helping them with posting and using it.
  • Working on a project called the electronic scoreboard. I built a second prototype, set up a web site, and am currently looking for manufacturers and getting feedback from users.
  • And a few more things I’m not ready to talk about yet.

Between learning about and getting used to owning a business, my own projects, and my contract work, I’ve been pretty busy with WYZGYZ. I’m not discouraged, though I have had a couple rough days and some tough decisions to make. Rather, I’m excited that I’m doing this, and I have high hopes for what it will become.

Starting on my own

January 13, 2011 Posted by bob in Uncategorized - (Comments Off)

It has been long overdue, but I’ve finally taken a giant step in my career. 1/11/11 was my last day working at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. I have left to start my own business, and I’m very excited about it. The last few days have been a flurry of paperwork, but I’m making progress and getting to a point where I can finally start talking about it. Assuming all my paperwork goes through in the next couple days, I’ll officially own my startup: WYZGYZ (pronounced ‘wise guys’).

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with PNNL when I was there. I really appreciated the opportunity to start working on challenging projects and contributing to publications and leading-edge research right out of university. I have many conference and journal papers and presentations, and even a few patent applications through the lab. I’ve gotten the chance to work with influential people at the top of their careers, and travel around the United States to meet and work with dozens of others on some pretty fantastic projects. I’ve learned a lot and become a pretty good software developer. For my first job out of school, the lab was perfect for me.

But there were things that bothered me about the lab; things which ultimately made me decide to leave. First among them was my inability to pursue my personal ideas. It’s ok to own my brain when I’m being paid for it, but there were things I wanted to do that just couldn’t be done while I was an employee at the lab. Second was bureaucracy. Working in a government lab was frustratingly slow, and many times I saw my ideas ground down and starved because they couldn’t get traction or took too long to get funding. The red tape machine is formidable and to me seemed counterproductive to innovation and progress. Finally, there was impact. Over the course of my tenure at the lab, I wrote a lot of software. Much of it was research software that was used for a prototype or a demo, shown to the client, and archived. In the latter half of my tenure I worked on software that did get used, sometimes in some pretty exciting ways, but never beyond a couple hundred users. It seemed like I would never be able to develop a product that could get through all the barriers to find use in the general community and have a meaningful impact on thousands or millions of people. Publications required approvals, and even posting to bulletin boards was regarded with skepticism. For a national resource, it seemed too closed-off.

WYZGYZ is my shot at building a business that has the things I liked about the lab and addresses the things I didn’t like.

My company will have three parts: contracting, products, and research. Contracting will allow me to work for clients and generate stable income. Products will allow me to develop my ideas into products that I can market and sell. Research will allow me to explore ideas and either turn them into products or publish them to the community.

Everything is in the very beginning stages, but I have a plan, I have all the resources I need, and I have a lot of hope and motivation and skill to make this work.

Mouse Modding

October 22, 2010 Posted by bob in Building | Computers - (Comments Off)

Last night I made some changes to my mouse; we’ll see if they’re improvements or not. Originally I was dismantling it to clean it. Something had gotten inside the wheel and was causing it to scroll inconsistently. Once I got inside, though, I saw an opportunity to tune it.

First was the clicking on the wheel. This is accomplished with a spring, and is sometimes annoying, especially since I like to give my scroll wheel big long spins to quickly move around on a page. Removing the spring was pretty easy.

Second, I noticed a weight added to the inside. I’m not entirely sure what the weight accomplishes, other than making the mouse that much harder to move, so I took it out, too.

If I need, I can easily put the parts back in, but at the moment I’m rocking a lighter, smoother mouse.

image

Productive Sunday

October 19, 2010 Posted by bob in Uncategorized - (Comments Off)

This is a shining example of a highly productive Sunday afternoon. I separated the marshmallows out of the cereal. Then I threw away the cereal. Then I ate the marshmallows. That’s a normal sheet of paper to get a sense of scale.

For what it’s worth, the cereal was stale and wasn’t going to get eaten anyway.