University of Michigan professor Kamal Sarabandi with the mannequin he uses to test his gun-detecting radar. Credit: University of Michigan.
So far, 2013 has been a great year for guns. Firearms have been flying off shelves across the country, with gun manufacturers reporting sales up nearly 40 percent from 2012. Despite Joe Biden's threats, Congress has all but given up on efforts to close background check loopholes or ban assault weapons, ensuring that it will remain relatively easy to obtain and own guns in the United States. And with the successful development of 3D-printed guns, the future of easy at-home firearms manufacturing is now, promising gun access to more Americans than ever before.
As Americans buy more guns, they are also taking those guns to more places. Every state except Illinois (and Washington, D.C.) now issues concealed carry permits, and Illinois lawmakers are working on legislation to remedy that this month. Since 2009, with help from the NRA, state legislators around the country have pushed through at least 100 bills to loosen gun restrictions, including laws that allow adults to carry concealed weapons at churches, sporting events, elementary schools, bars, national parks, and on college campuses.
Obviously, this proliferation of guns obviously poses a big threat to public safety, as evidenced by the unspeakable tragedies in Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut, last year, not to mention the roughly 85 gun deaths that happen each day in the U.S.
But if we can't stop people from buying, or printing, guns, it might help to know when and where they are packing. At least that's the logic behind a new gun-detecting radar technology that would allow virtually anybody to find a concealed weapons, even in large crowds.
Created by University of Michigan electrical engineering professor Kamal Sarabandi with funding from the Department of Defense, the technology pairs polarimetric radar with Doppler radar signal processing to identify an individual who might be carrying a weapon.
Basically, Sarabandi and his team used the Doppler radar—which measures an object's speed—to identify the general pattern of a human walking, or what he calls "the DNA of walking." A computer is programmed to recognize that pattern, focusing on the subject's chest, and then polarimetric radar is used to send out a signal at a particular polarization, and analyze the signal that bounces back. An irregular metal object—like a gun—would change the signal.
Originally intended for military use, the gun radar would obviously be a huge gift to law enforcement and security officials, who could use it to scan a crowd for concealed guns in the same way they use highway radar guns to find speeding cars.
"In a large group of people, it adds an additional layer of security," Sarabandi told me. "At a big gathering, like a stadium or shopping malls—situations where you might want to scan a large group—you could implement this technology so that rather than searching everybody, you can pick out a few people who you might want to investigate."
The radar takes less than one second per person, he added, and can be used at a distance, "so it's a lot quicker than trying to search everyone, or using an X-ray machine."
The radar isn't foolproof—researchers worry, for example, that 3D-guns could trick the system. It also raises interesting privacy issues about the right to carry a concealed weapon. It's not clear how gun rights lobby would react to a device that allowed authorities to detect, and potentially search, gun owners. (The NRA did not respond to our request for comment.)
Sarabandi concedes that engineers have a ways to go before the radar can be used by the general public. The technology has not yet been tested on humans, or on humans with real guns. Instead, researchers used computer simulations, and experimented with a mannequin painted with a coat that reflects radar-like human skin.
"The next step is to take the research that we've done and develop a compact system," he said, "Do the engineering work, try it in different scenarios, and identify the usability with field testing."