Thursday, September 15, 2005

Hundreds of people try out new Internet-controlled pellet gun

Angelus Oaks (CA) - Firing a gun by pushing a button on a website is no science-fiction anymore. Cobbling together gears, webcam parts and a pellet gun that shoots plastic BB's, enthusiast Travis Puderbaugh's gun can be moved, targeted and fired through the Internet. In the first public test, people thousands of miles away were able to login and shoot the gun.
In making the gun, Puderbaugh took out the imaging sensor from a Logitech Quickcam and mounted it to the front of an Airsoft pistol. Airsoft guns are realistic looking guns that shoot small and light plastic pellets. The gun was then mounted on a gear assembly and servos powered by four AA batteries. The gun can pan left/right and can tilt up and down. The whole system connects to a host computer via a serial port. Using Visual Basic, Puderbaugh coded a custom application that runs on the host machine. The app allows remote users to log in and control the gun. Operators access a webpage and see real-time video of the target. The gun can then be moved in four directions and can be fired in single shot or full-auto mode with a simple click of the mouse button. To prevent accidental shootings, a safety switch was installed. The simple up/down switch will prevent the gun from firing, even when operators are furiously clicking fire on the webpage.
On September 3rd 2005, in a secluded mountain retreat in Angelus Oaks, California, we witnessed the gun's first public test. Before firing, Puderbaugh checked the movement range of the gun by whirling it right, left, up and down. Satisfied, he flicked the safety switch off, and fired a volley of rounds with a few clicks of his laptop touchpad. The intended target was a surplus laptop and the LCD screen shattered as dozens of rounds made a direct hit
Then Puderbaugh announced on MIRC channels the web address of the gun and challenged people to fire it. Over the course of the day hundreds, perhaps thousands of people tried to remotely control and shoot the gun. According to Puderbaugh, over 43,000 requests were made for the webcam image and about 4,500 commands were sent to the gun. Empty Coke cans, plastic cups and other objects were put up as targets
Puderbaugh, known as Kallahar in the hacker community, is no stranger to remotely-controlled and autonomous gadgets. He has participated in robotic contests at the annual Defcon conventions in Las Vegas and is a member of the Irvine-based autonomous vehicle team, Team Cyberrider, which will compete in this year's DARPA Grand Challenge. In fact all of this is in preparation for next year's Defcon robot contest, where contestants must make a robot that will autonomously shoot targets. The targets will be lit up with LEDs and robots will use IR filters to distinguish good targets from bad ones. The complete instructions on how to build the gun are online and Puderbaugh thinks it was quite easy. "If I can build one for $200, then anyone can. This was not a hard project," says Puderbaugh. While some people may be concerned about the availability of the information, more powerful remote controlled weapons are being used around the world already. For example, remotely-controlled machine guns are emplaced along the new Gaza Fence in Israel and weapons have been mounted on robot sentries in Iraq. Puderbaugh says, "this is what can be done on a very limited budget, the information is already out there. We're not letting any secrets out."
But is all of this legal? A few weeks ago, we ran a story about the California state legislature approving a bill that banned "Internet Hunting" - the remote-controlled shooting and killing of animals. While Governor Schwarzenegger hasn't signed the bill yet, Puderbaugh erred on the side of caution and contacted state and local law enforcement officials to find out the legality of his gun. Most officials didn't know, but according to Puderbaugh, the California Department of Justice said, "we don't have any laws [preventing it], contact your local police department." Puderbaugh realizes the legal consequences of making such a gun, saying, "the responsibility for the gun still lies with the owner, regardless of who is pulling the trigger or where they are located." We called the office of Senator Debra Bowen (D-Redondo Beach), who sponsored the California Internet Hunting bill, in order to get her view on the remote-controlled gun. A spokesman said that gun wouldn't fall under the bill and was probably legal. He also said that the bill didn't address target shooting against inanimate objects, only shooting against live animals. Although some people may consider a remote-controlled gun to be a menace to society, Puderbaugh considers it to be just a "toy" and his original intention was never to kill or hurt anything. The gun was built as a technical demonstration for shooting cans and other targets. "I don't shoot or hurt any animals," he said.

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