How would the course of history have been changed if assassins' weapons had been detected before they were fired? From Abraham Lincoln in 1865 to Archduke of Austria Franz Ferdinand in 1914 to the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, shootings of high-profile figures in public places have started wars and ended movements.
Two George Mason University professors are shaping future history by developing a pre-shot weapons detector that can identify the location of a brandished gun before the shooter fires a first shot, as well as during a subsequent firefight. The detectors could one day make schools and workplaces safer, better protect deployed military members and serve as an extra layer of security for heads of state.
The technology, originally discovered under an Office of Naval Research grant to George Mason in 2008, can detect a range of firearms, from a four-inch revolver to an 81-millimeter mortar launcher. And, unlike previous anti-sniper technological advancements that locate the shooter after the first shot, this one detects the weapon before it is fired whether the weapon uses optical or iron sights.
FirstGuard Technologies Corporation, a tech transfer startup company co-founded in 2010 by Volgenau School of Engineering associate professor Ken Hintz and School of Management assistant professor Jim Wolfe, has received a $2.3 million contract from the Office of Naval Research to build prototypes of Hintz's pre-shot weapons detector.
A significant federal contract awarded to such a young company indicates just how enthusiastic the government is about Hintz's breakthrough. The Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State all have indicated a keen interest in the prototypes. Private security companies already have offered purchase orders for the finished product, the primary purpose of which is to save lives, not just detect the weapons.
"This makes it more difficult for a perpetrator to do something," says Hintz, an electrical engineer and former U.S. Navy aviator who also has patented landmine detection equipment. "If the shooter is not aware of how you detect them, you're going to capture the untrained sniper, and you've made it a lot more difficult for the trained sniper."
"We've solved the problem of the ‘grassy knoll,'" Wolfe says in reference to the possible origin of the bullet that [Assistant Professor Jim Wolfe, School of Business] struck President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. "If the Secret Service had had this with them in the motorcade when Lee Harvey Oswald stuck the rifle barrel out the window―and there are photographs of that rifle barrel sticking out after the fact when they developed the film―that would have been detected. You will know if
someone is brandishing a weapon in the area before he or she can pull the trigger."
If installed either inside or outside a school or business, the detector could bolster building security by sensing the presence of a weapon and sounding an alarm, allowing occupants to go into lockdown mode before a shooter acts. The sniper then goes from targeting to being targeted by on-site security or responding police officers.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a Department of Defense research arm, has developed post-shot detection technology, which tracks a bullet backward to figure out where fire should be returned. But this determination can be made only after a possible casualty. Sometimes one high-value target is the shooter's lone objective.
Hintz's innovation processes a radar signal that is modified when it interacts with the bore, or interior of the barrel of the weapon, because the bore acts as a wave guide. His technology works on rifles with both telescopic and iron sights and it can detect weapons from various distances―portal entry, which is from 1 to 50 meters; urban warfare, which covers out to about 300 meters; and open field to ranges in excess of 1 kilometer.
The technology underwent rigorous testing at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida in December, using an existing instrumentation radar at the facility. A company in Boston is building the first field demonstration prototype, scheduled for completion before the end of 2015. A Northern Virginia company will write the operational software.
In the meantime, FirstGuard is seeking additional outside investors. Mason owns 10 percent of the equity shares in FirstGuard, as well as the patents, and will receive royalty payments once product sales begin. FirstGuard has signed a lease at the Mason Enterprise Center, matching a Mason entrepreneurial endeavor with a Mason entrepreneurial community.
A version of this story by Preston Williams appeared on Mason's News Desk on June 19, 2014