David Codrea wrote a column warning of a potential new privacy-busting product called the SWORD. The ramifications were pretty obvious to me, too. Warrantless searches, outing lawful CCW, crooks locating loot, crooks spotting the armed guy to off first.
“The company has created a case that goes around either an iPhone 8 Plus or Pixel 2 XL and uses the phone’s audio sound waves as a sort of sonar to detect whether someone is carrying a gun, knife or explosive device.”
Perhaps, perhaps not. But other dangers come to mind. The whole point of carrying concealed is to preserve privacy as part of an overall defensive posture. Anti-gunners could use the device to harass and even SWAT a gun owner. Criminals could use it to identify who they would need to take out by surprise first. Police could use it to bypass Fourth Amendment search and seizure proscriptions. The company claims Homeland Security is intrigued.
Based on my research, I think I smell “scam.” And that’s the bright side of a tool for tyranny meant to disarm, register, and track free people. I can think of certain governments that would have loved it.
My background includes — among many other things — electronics, heavy emphasis on RF and even radar (which comes into this in a minute). Right off, I wondered about that “audio sound wave” bit. Human hearing-range sound waves shouldn’t have the resolution to do what the SWORD allegedly does, without some impressive processing. So I dug a little bit more.
Elsewhere, I found a link that claimed it was ultrasonic. This gets into the resolution-range of the possible — we’ve all seen ultrasound baby pictures — but ultrasound works in contact. With a gel to improve transmission/reception. Working at 40 feet?
On to the Royal Holdings website, where I found some specifications and images. There I learned that the SWORD is neither audible acoustic nor ultrasonic, but RF-based, specifically, the US model would work at 3-10 GHz. That makes a lot more sense. It’s a little bitty radar system.
But I was still dubious. That frequency range would give a max resolution of 3 centimeters, just under one and a quarter inches; which makes it hard to resolve the shape of a gun less than an inch wide, seen edge on.
There are ways to do it though, involving scanned antenna arrays and digital signal processing. Fancy stuff, and it would require a lot of cash to develop a single chip to handle it all (and RF transmission and reception combined); it seemed a bit much to expect from a startup to develop and sell for $1,250 ($950 for pre-orders). But technically doable.
But I was still bothered by the claim that it can detect and recognize weapons at 40 feet. Reading their specs bothered me even more.
This is supposed to work up to forty feet. But it says that the device is FCC approved and transmits under -41dBM. That’s 0.00007 mW, 0.00000007 W, and I simply don’t believe that a cellphone-sized antenna array at that power level would yield a readable reflected power at 40 feet.
Royal Holding’s tech specs mentioned the processor chip that is the heart of this gadget. It’s a VYYR2401, which turns out to be a real thing, sold by Israeli company Vayyar. And it’s impressive. (Some folks don’t realize it, but Israel has a pretty decent tech sector, beyond fine arms).
The VYYR2401 really is a transmitter/receiver/array-scanning/digital signal processor all in one chip.
Reading about that, I discovered that Vayyar has a retail divsion called Walabot. This where things get quite interesting.
If you look at the Walabot Maker series of chip-based sensor kits, you’ll find interesting things in their spec sheets. Like images of circuit boards which appear to be the originals of the images in Royal Holding’s SWORD brochure. Even the RF field diagrams.
It very much appears that RH lifted their tech data and images from Walabot. My initial thought was that RH is simply buying Walbot Maker kits, writing their own smartphone app, and reselling it at a huge mark-up. The Creator version runs $149.99 from Walabot, while RH says they’ll sell at $1,250. The Walabot Developer is priced at $599.99. Such a deal. For Royal Holdings.
But then I spoke to someone about the cool stuff the Walabot products can potentially do, and started thinking about raising the money to buy one myself for experimenting (the sensing possibilities are incredible; by the specs, the Walabots are very cool).
And I found the Walabot DIY. This is a $65 dollar… cellphone case that turns your smartphone into an RF-based remote sensor that can detect and image hidden objects. Sound a bit familiar?
If Royal Holdings is actually planning to sell the SWORD, I believe it is a re-packaged Walabot DIY, at a $1,185 markup, or 19 times the real price.
But I have significant reservations about the legitimacy of the operation.
They’re using images from another company’s web site.
Nothing in Vayyar chip specs or Walabot specs indicates that it can operate at 40 feet. Indeed, the Walabot DIY is listed at being able to sense metal objects through walls at four inches. Not forty feet. So we appear to have one outright false claim.
Royal Holdings also claims that the SWORD can detect explosives. What the Vayyar VYYR2401 chip detects is dielectric materials. Vayyar says it can be set up to measure milk fat content; presumably by setting a reflectance value for the dielectric of a known milk fat level, and looking for variation. In theory, one might build a similar reflectance database for known explosives, but you’d have to know how to compensate for any intervening materials: cotton, nylon, dry clothing, damp clothing, metallized clothing (and won’t that wreak havoc on weapons detection). If it works at all, there will be a lot of false positives AND negatives.
Also note that detection/analysis based on reflectance values means knowing received signal strength very precisely: the farther away something is, the lower the return signal. It is impossible for the SWORD to know the distance to a random object, and compute the return signal level. They’d have to add in range detection to compute path loss, to then compute reflectance to guess at a material. That functionality does not appear to be in the VYYR2401, making explosives detection another seemingly false claim.
Then there are issues with the supposed business itself.
Many individuals register web domains anonymously, to protect their privacy. For-profit businesses, that rely upon people knowing who they are, rarely do.
royalholdings.org is registered through an anonymizing proxy. For one year.
What sort of business that plans to be around long enough to deliver a product — still in design — registers its domain for just one year? And .org? For a business?
royalholdings.com is parked, for sale.
What kind of business won’t spring for the .com domain?
The SWORD’s Royal Holdings claims to be located in West Hollywood, California. The only active California incorporation listing I can find for “Royal Holdings” is Royal Holdings, LLC located in Los Angeles. It’s been around for twenty years. This “Royal Holdings” is a new startup according to CNET.
The SWORD Royal Holdings’ principals — per their Team page — are Barry Oberholzer, Jeromy Pittaro, and Chuck Bloomquist.
The principal for Royal Holdings, LLC in LA is David Soufer.
Is the SWORD’s maker marketer appropriating another company’s name?
If this SWORDsmith has investors, they should be asking serious questions, and possibly demanding their money back. As should those 8,000 prospective customers who Oberholzer claims have pre-ordered at $950 a pop.
But David Codrea notes, “I doubt if there really are investors– I’m smelling an ad agency stunt by the antis.”
That’s a real possibility; that the anti-rights gun control crowd is pulling a stunt to rile gun owners. And sites like CNET giving them unquestioning adoration (kudos to 9to5Mac’s Lovejoy for expressing his own doubts)?
“What gets me is tech websites regurgitating their stuff,” Codrea said.
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