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Is the HEXWAVE 3D Printed Gun Detector Ahead of the Game?

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With dozens of specialized weapons detection manufacturers worldwide, the sector seems well-covered. However, in the last few years, the potential threat of new kinds of weapons made out of non-metallic materials has raised serious concerns; among them, 3D printed guns. Falling under the “ghost gun” category, 3D printed guns are not serialized or traceable, and can be made almost entirely with a printer at home. In the U.S., the First Amendment protects anyone who plans to 3D print a gun, and the files to create them are guarded as free speech. However, the the home manufacturing of these weapons has become an increasing concern among law enforcement. Anticipating a potential danger, security technology newcomer Liberty Defense is ready to beta test a new non-metal weapons detection system in airports and other commercial checkpoint applications.

To understand more about this new system, talked to Liberty Defense CEO Bill Frain, who explained how new technologies could bring security teams into a reality in which untraceable and even non-metal weapons exist.

RF Detection

There are plenty of metal detector companies in the security market, but that is not what Liberty Defense is. After launching in 2018, the company developed proprietary technology that can detect a broader spectrum of threats or anomalies, rather than metal alone. Its solution, called HEXWAVE, can provide walkthrough, touchless detection of both metal and non-metal weapons.

For that to happen, it uses low-power radio frequency to create 3D images of items that are not visible on a person. These images are then assessed by artificial intelligence (AI) to identify weapons and other threats. The company has an exclusive license from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a technology transfer agreement for patents related to active 3D imaging technology

From a technology perspective, the system is very similar to the body scanners currently used at airports, says Frain, but with a twist. The system works by scanning people as they walk through the device’s panels in a socially distanced manner, without the need for passers-through to stop, remove coats or even empty their pockets.

“We are taking a reflection of an object on the body and creating a 3D image of that threat to determine if something real merits a security guard stopping the person. It doesn’t matter whether the item is metallic, non-metallic, liquid, or plastic. If something should not be on a person, our machine is designed to detect it,” explained Frain.

This is a big differentiator for Liberty Defense, since an item’s composition is not going to stop HEXWAVE from deciphering whether it is a threat or not claims the CEO. But don’t expect to see a HEXWAVE at a supermarket, airport, or school, since the placement timeline might take a while. The product is currently in beta, which means the hardware configuration is done, and Frain says the team is “training” the software algorithms to look for various threats.

As part of its beta phase, HEXWAVE will be tested at a few locations: Canada’s largest airport, Toronto Pearson International Airport; the Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland; the University of Wisconsin-Madison; a major Hindu temple outside of Atlanta, Georgia; and Port Tampa Bay in Florida, among others.

Active threat monitoring combined display for Hexwave non-metal gun detector.

Active threat monitoring combined display for Hexwave non-metal gun detector. Image courtesy of Liberty Defense.

What’s more, the company has secured a contract with the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA), thanks to a competitive tender for aviation worker screening won by Liberty Defense in September 2021. Frain says the contract with TSA will be to screen aviation workers going into airports that have airside access.

“While passengers go through a normal checkpoint to board a plane, aviation workers have a separate checkpoint. So, TSA wants a program to enhance the detection capability because aviation employees have access to planes, fuel tanks, and more. The key is that they want to increase the detection capability, visibility, and overall throughput and screening experience.”

Frain said that Homeland Security had invested early on in developing this technology, so they have a vested interest in seeing its capabilities from a detection standpoint. Additionally, in 2022, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the use of radar-based imaging for the detection of weapons and other objects hidden on a scanned person. The recent order issued by the FCC approves the system for operation and represents a major step toward final certification and commercialization of the technology.

A Recent History of 3D Printed Gun Upheaval

After open-source firm Defense Distributed designed the first gun and released the files online in 2013, 3D printed weapons may have seemed like a relatively small safety threat. However, it is now raising concerns for many governments and security agencies. In response to what they consider a growing threat, earlier this year, the European Police Office (Europol) organized the first 3D-printed firearms conference in the Hague. At the same time, the Biden administration called for an assault weapons ban and other measures to curb gun violence. Undoubtedly, 3D printed guns or individual parts that some individuals create at home with their own printers have increased concerns that homemade weapons could live up to their prematurely violent reputation.

Several attacks in 2022 in U.S. communities have driven a lot of attention to homemade firearms in general, and 3D-printed guns, in particular, are coming under scrutiny. Last year, there were approximately 20,000 suspected ghost guns reportedly recovered by law enforcement in criminal investigations, a tenfold increase from 2016, according to Liberty Defense. Our research revealed that over 90 people had been arrested for 3D printed guns worldwide in the last three years.

Even though the number is small compared to other criminal arrests – such as for drug possession which remains steady at more than a million per year in the U.S. alone – what worries agencies and experts is the increase of 3D printed guns found during criminal investigations. According to our data, 42% of all 3D printed gun-related arrests were in 2022, while we estimate that roughly 31% of all arrests occurred in 2021, and 12% in 2020.

“3D printed guns have been around for several years. It became more prominent when President Biden made his statement recently about the fact that, they are not traceable and readily available, which created more visibility into the issue. Our goal at Liberty Defense is to prevent somebody from getting into an event, a place of worship, stadium, school, or shopping, where someone might have a printed, plastic gun or other types of threats,” insisted Frain.

The HEXWAVE will not only act as a deterrent for anyone that wants to carry 3D-printed guns with the intent to harm but also other threats. For example, Frain described that someone with intent to harm could carry improvised explosive devices, like pipe bombs, made out of the standard plastic C-4, powders, liquids, and other potentially dangerous items. Given the recent assassination of former Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, with a homemade weapon, it wouldn’t be surprising if technology like HEXWAVE began to increase in use. Though the firearm was not 3D printed, the suspect was found to have two other DIY guns at home, along with some explosives.

“We have a list of specific harmful items we are working on, and part of the work is done in cooperation with TSA. The operation of the system is pretty straightforward. So that when you walk through the HEXWAVE, a 3D image of an item found on the body automatically goes to a workstation, and the AI immediately determines if it’s a threat or not. The machine operator will see only a genéricos avatar, so there are no privacy issues or safety issues concerning this technology. But it will highlight whether the threat is present or not. Then if there is a threat, the officer will be alerted, and the machine will highlight where the person is carrying the harmful item,” concluded Frain.

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