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Fighting crime with smart firearm

By Julie Clothier for CNN

Nic van Zyl with his "Intelligent Firearm"
Will intelligent firearms succeed in reducing gun crime?
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PRETORIA, South Africa (CNN) -- More than 15 years ago, Nic van Zyl started developing an "Intelligent Firearm" that would operate only if it identified its user as legitimate.

Now, science and technology has caught up with his dream, and he hopes to see it become a reality by the end of the year, incorporating biometrics and cameras into the finished version.

The idea to create a smart gun to combat firearm misuse was inspired by the high crime rates in van Zyl's home country, South Africa.

Fed up with hearing of stories about guns falling into the wrong hands, including children and police officers being robbed of their firearms, van Zyl decided to do something about it.

Since then his whole family has worked on the project, securing patents throughout the world and working with companies and governments to develop the idea.

Van Zyl, a former civil engineer, said his aim was to address shortcomings of ordinary firearms, making them safer and reducing the number of accidents.

"The problem with the firearm is that it is a dumb killing machine. It has no recognition of the identification of its owner and no accountability."

His objectives included personalizing the weapon, so that it could be used only by its owner and other identified users, to record the history of the weapon's actions making it more accountable, and to make firearm licenses renewable.

To personalize the firearm, van Zyl has incorporated biometrics technology into the trigger.

He said that his first efforts were rather "crude."

"When we first started, fingerprint sensors were so big and cumbersome that they weren't practical for use in firearms. They were also very slow to identify fingerprints," he said.

"Now, they are so small, just a couple of millimeters in size. Over the years, science and technology has come up with the answers."

His first prototype was built in 1994.

Biometrics technology means the weapon is linked to a user. When a registered thumbprint comes into contact with the biometrics reader on the gun, it enables the weapon to work, identifying the print within a timeframe of between a third of a second and a quarter of a second.

Van Zyl has also incorporated technology similar to that used in camera phones into his Intelligent Firearm.

The weapon has a camera inside it, and images are sent in real time to a central database. For example, in the case of a police officer's gun, the information would be sent to central police headquarters.

The system means the location of the gun can be monitored at all times.

The data recorded includes the location and time, and would be used as evidence in court, van Zyl said.

The final element of the gun is to make the license to own one renewable -- something that does not happen under current South African law.

It would work in the same way as other subscription services, so that authorities can keep up-to-date records of gun users.

Van Zyl said he was currently in negotiations, including with the British Department of Trade and Industry, for the product to be developed and manufactured.

"It's finally all coming to fruition. We hope to have it in the market place by the end of the year," he said, adding that he was currently looking for a financial partner.

He believed his invention would be most useful in the military, particularly for soldiers on peacekeeping missions, for police officers and for security guards.

Without advances in technology, his invention would not have become so close to reality, he said.

"Ultimately, it's about saving lives and making lives safer, and to change the opinion in some countries about gun culture."

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