RFID Arms Schools with Shooter Detection

Published: June 26, 2024
  • A group of Minnesota high school students has launched a nonprofit, Vigilance Safety, that offers a UHF RFID based solution to identify when a gun approaches a school.
  • The system includes RFID readers at school egresses and tags voluntarily applied to guns by the gun owners, as well as software to manage read data and whitelist permitted guns.

The average age of a school shooter is just 16. And while adults have attempted to stop these shootings, the age-group that has actually grown up with shooting drills in their schools may have a new, effective approach. Their goal—prevent the next Uvalde or Newtown through technology and responsible gun ownership.

A handful of teenage innovators in Minnesota this summer are showcasing their RFID-based solution to combat school shootings. It relies on engagement from the gun-owning community married with technology to bring a fresh approach at attempts to limit gun violence.

In the 2022-23 school year, the group of now-graduated Minnesota high school students started a non-profit company known as Vigilance Safety that leverages technology to identify a gun that is on school property or approaching a doorway.

The solution consists of passive, UHF RFID tags—that would be voluntarily applied to guns by their owners—interrogators and antennas mounted at school entrances to detect those tagged weapons; and software to manage the data and integrate with a school’s own response system.

High School Students Solutions

The Vigilance Safety system began as a school project at Wayzata High School, a school in Plymouth that is about a half-hour outside of Minneapolis. The students presented the idea in March 2022 and launched their company two months later. They competed in a Destination Imagination challenge aimed at addressing community problems and their innovation won first place in the local, national and global levels.

This summer, as the founders now prepare for college, the company’s intention is to demonstrate the system prototype, build a commercially available system and begin deploying it. The company is leveraging new board members, most of whom are still in high school, as well as receiving support from at least one individual in the RFID industry.

Targeting Gun Theft from Family

The students started their innovation based on a a statistic: “74 percent of school shooters get a gun from their parent, or family member—the median age of school shooters is 16 so they’re often far too young to buy a gun themselves,” said Neev Zeroni, Vigilance Safety’s co-founder and technical lead. That means that the owner of the gun often has no knowledge that their weapon will be used in a school shooting.

With that in mind, the group began looking into ways that technology could help parents own their guns more responsibly. The aim is that the school shootings will happen significantly less often, “preventing guns [that are] stolen from family members from entering schools,” said Zeroni.

Back in 2022, Zeroni recalled, “my cofounder, my other technical lead and I, we were brainstorming different ideas of how to help a community with issues like school shootings and then from there we actually discovered RFID technology.” They began researching the technology to understand the benefits and limitations of different tags.

How it Works

First, gun owners or buyers are encouraged to apply a tag to their firearm. The location on the gun where tags will be placed hasn’t been finalized, but the company is focusing on the lower receivers that house the trigger assembly. That portion of the gun is the most difficult part of the gun to replace, so is likely to provide a permanent real estate on the weapon. Additionally, the lower receiver is usually plastic, making it less likely to obstruct RF transmissions.

The unique ID number encoded on the tag would link to recognized gun ID numbers in the system’s software. In that way, tags from other sources such as RFID-enabled price labels from stores would not be recognized by the system if they entered a school.

Schools that participate would be equipped with an RFID interrogator at a door with two antennas that could typically identify tagged guns at up to 30 meters distance.

If someone, who is carrying a gun that’s been tagged, approaches the school, the system would trigger an alarm, lockdown procedures or other actions that are part of that school’s protocol.

Gun Whitelists and Adjustable Sensitivity

The system has been able to read a tag inside a car that comes near a school entrance, which means a parent picking up their child would need to be sure they left their gun at home. Laws typically already prohibit guns on school campus.

If a tagged gun is being read at a distance beyond the school campus, the reader sensitivity could be dialed down as well.

Additionally, the system can come with a list of tagged guns that are allowed on campuses—such guns could be detected but would not initiate alarms. Those would include guns carried by security officers.

Privacy for Gun Owners

The solution is designed to take the privacy of gun owners into consideration, Zeroni said. In fact, the group selected RFID as the detection technology for this application because of its low-cost, wide-usage, and the ability to protect privacy of the gun owners themselves.

Passive UHF RFID tags, which transmit only when interrogated, and only with a unique ID number, cannot be tracked in real time. Instead, readers at school doors are the only devices that would read the tag ID, and that ID would not be linked to the owner themselves.

“We thought that was a really great advantage,” Zeroni said. In fact, the group conducted an engagement survey with members of the public, locally, and found about 75 percent of gun owners surveyed were comfortable with this solution. That, he said, was “based on the fact that it’s not tracking your gun, it doesn’t have any of your personal information on it, and it doesn’t interfere with the function of the gun.”

Based on the survey results, the company anticipates that most gun owners, especially those with families, would be willing to have their weapon tagged to ensure it is never used in a school shooting.

Prototype and Partnering

So far Vigilance Safety has created a functional prototype that consists of off-the-shelf readers and antennas, and custom tags, which will be demonstrated to potential adopters (such as schools) this summer.

“We’re planning on piloting once we have a fully finalized prototype that we have tested.” Currently, the team is testing different tags, antenna orientations, and how the system works depending on obstructions or different materials.

Additionally, the company is testing adhesives such as a quick application epoxy that would be intended to make the tag so difficult to remove that the gun would break first before the tag came off.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure that our solution is bulletproof, in the literal and the figurative sense of the word,” Zeroni said.

Technological Challenges

A priority for the organization is making sure that the solution is secure on its own bandwidth with a physical layer authentication key that will ensure its security.

There will still be cases in which adults, who can legitimately go out and buy a gun, may have an intention of using it in a school and therefore choose not to tag it.

“There really is never going to be one solution that will forever stop school shootings. We are one solution to help. We’re here to reduce a very large portion of the problem,” observed Zeroni.

The non-profit is looking for partnerships with RFID companies.

“I’m not an RFID professional—I learned about RFID by reading about it online,” Zeroni pointed out. He will be entering the University of Minnesota  to study mechanical engineering this fall. “We were actually planning on partnering with an RFID company or at least that’s a goal of ours.”

Plans Ahead

In the meantime, Vigilance Safety has patents pending for the solution, which includes RFID use for firearm detection, white lists and emergency output to school systems. Integration with each school system will require a level of customization, said Zeroni.

“What that integration looks like from a school-to-school basis is very different,” he said.

This summer the company will work with a contract manufacturer regarding tags, and it will hold at least three public events to gauge engagement with the community, in Minnesota. In the meantime the company has onboarded seven new members in the past month, most still in high school.

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