Over the last four years, a small group of assistive technology hackers has been developing a remote-controlled gun that can be fired using just the muscles in the shooter’s forehead. Last week, 37-year old Floridian Michael Phillips put the shooting assistant to the test at a local shooting range and probably became the first person to ever fire a gun with their eyebrow.
Phillips lives with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a genetic disease that results in the loss of voluntary muscle movement. When he was born, doctors gave Phillips less than a year to live, but nearly four decades later he’s still crossing items off his ‘Things to Do’ list. Although he describes himself as “ultra-liberal, anti-NRA, anti-all things Trumpian,” Phillips still included a visit to a shooting range to “fire a gun with a switch” on his to-do list.
“Guns as part of fiction, as objects, have always fascinated me,” Phillips said. “I mean, when a fellow cocks his shotgun before he relieves a zombie of its head that click-click sound is cool. I think you can admire a gun as an object, as something used for fun, and still be strongly against the ways in which people use guns to perpetuate vile acts of cruelty.”
To say that shooting ranges are popular in America is a bit of an understatement. Target shooting is a billion dollar industry, and NPR even went so far as to call shooting ranges the “new bowling alleys.” Most shooting ranges offer a wide selection of firearms for their customers to choose from, but none of these were outfitted for people like Phillips, whose voluntary movement is restricted to his right eyebrow.
The idea for Phillips’ shooting assistant was born in 2014 following a chance meeting with Bill Binko, the founder of ATMakers, an organization that melds the hacking spirit with assistive technologies.
Developing the shooting assistant took four years and required overcoming a number of regulatory and technical hurdles. After clearing the project with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Binko had to develop a computer interface that would allow Phillips to aim and fire, as well as a robotic interface and mount for the gun.
“The biggest technical challenge was actually how to hold the gun safely,” Binko said.
To meet this challenge, Binko used a shooting mount developed by a company called Ransom that is primarily used by forensic investigators to recreate crime scenes. Since Phillips’ forehead sensor already allowed him to navigate the internet using eyebrow movement, Binko made a web interface that would allow him to activate the robotic switch that would fire the gun. The resulting shooting assistant is a composite of Phillips’ eyebrow sensor, a Raspberry Pi microcontroller, a small servo motor, a custom gun rest, and a few dozen lines of Python code.
On June 23, Phillips and Binko took the shooting assistant to a Florida gun range and used it to fire a Glock 17 at targets. The first shot was a little off and hit the shoulder of the silhouette target, but the technology worked. As for the experience itself, Phillips described it as “really fucking cool.”
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At a time when tech-augmented firearms are still a highly controversial issue, Phillips’ shooting assistant feels like a vision of the future. Gun manufacturers have strongly resisted the development of “smart guns,” and the controversial nature of the project wasn’t lost on Phillips.
“Life isn’t black and white, it’s gray,” Phillips said. “Guns are surrounded in gray. It’s all about the way in which a gun is used.”