Identifying Energy Waves Becomes Faster And More Precise

February 2008
By Rita Boland

Customs and Border Protection officers stationed in Miami coordinate with the Florida Department of Agriculture on screening vehicles entering the 2007 Super Bowl. The mobile capability of the Stand-Off Radiation Detection System being developed through the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office will enable law enforcement officers to use the system at major events without dedicating it to the location full time.
A new program aims to find dangerous materials with a mobile device.

With the possibility of a nuclear attack within the United States still very real, developers from the government and private industry are working to create radiation detectors that will yield more accurate results from greater distances. Building on technology created for fields such as astrophysics and nuclear medicine, the homeland security community wants to create tools that will stop the “bad guys” before they reach their destinations.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) recently awarded four contracts to public and private organizations for the creation of advanced nuclear detectors that demonstrate the ability to determine autonomously the type and location of radiation sources at much greater distances than current technology allows. The capability is being created under the DNDO’s Stand-Off Radiation Detection System (SORDS) program.

Technologies developed under the SORDS program would provide an integrated capability not available currently as well as enable new concepts of operation for radiation detection. In addition, these technologies would lower the operational burden. Current systems can detect and identify radiation, but only when in close proximity to the source. At a distance, the source of interest does not emit enough signal counts over background counts from naturally occurring materials.

Although SORDS is a new program, development of these types of detection capabilities has been ongoing. Advances made in other areas over the past several decades have relevance to SORDS, and officials at the DNDO have made a general assessment of the maturity of applicable techniques. They determined that now was the appropriate time to release a solicitation both to generate ideas and to stimulate the technical community to develop devices that meet homeland security needs.

The technology being developed further in SORDS has demonstrated the capability to improve the signal-to-background ratio and to allow detection at farther distances. The DNDO’s goal is detection up to 100 meters away, though distances will vary depending primarily on the time of the measurement and the strength of the source. The DNDO expects the results at the end of SORDS to show at least an order of magnitude better performance than current systems for detection at a distance.

The new technology also could allow faster detection, detection over a large area and enhanced search capabilities. Officials with the DNDO say SORDS provides another tool in a layered approach to preventing nuclear smuggling.

The first three SORDS demonstration contracts were announced at the beginning of October 2007 and awarded to General Electric Global Research of Niskayuna, New York; Science Applications International Corporation of San Diego; and the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) of Washington, D.C. The DNDO awarded a fourth contract to Raytheon Company, headquartered in Waltham, Massachusetts, later that month.

The DNDO strives for innovative problem solving, so the organization allowed for freedom of creativity in the solicitation. “We did say to proposers this is how we want the thing to perform, but we don’t want to tell them how to achieve these results,” says William Hagan, assistant director for transformational and applied research at the DNDO. The result was four proposals with different approaches to creating the necessary tools.

The SORDS program’s purpose is to continue developing the capability to detect and localize potential radioactive threat sources at a distance. These technologies, which have been used in other fields, are being further developed for employment on mobile systems to establish the new detection capability. The contract awardees will build devices that the DNDO will test to characterize performance. The performance data will be used to develop a cost-benefit analysis to assess the improvement of the new capability over current technology.

General Electric officials state that their aim in this project “is to successfully design and deploy a system that has broad applications at ports of entry, traffic funnel points, mass transit areas and stadiums and other public event sites.”

Designing a system that enhances nuclear threat detection capabilities over larger areas and distances in public areas, while also being compact in design, is a key goal of the General Electric project.

At the NRL, the development team calls its project Mobile Imaging and Spectroscopic Threat Identification (MISTI), and experts are building on experience to create the new device. A team comprising mostly astrophysicists at the laboratory has experimented previously with the technologies in MISTI for space-based applications. The team also has been working on ground-based loose nuclear technology for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Bernard Phlips, principal investigator for MISTI, says the organization has been performing work on ground-based systems since before September 11, 2001.

Phlips, himself an astrophysicist, explains that work on space capabilities is easier technically, and budgets are much larger. “These things are not cheap,” he states. Part of the problem for homeland security applications is constricted funding. “Money is much more the issue, and they want it compact,” Phlips shares.

In addition to the Space Science Division of the NRL, which is performing the sensor and other work, the Tactical Technology Section of the laboratory is participating in MISTI by managing the mobile infrastructure and communications. Part of the SORDS requirement for the demonstration is that the devices be able to both detect radiation and communicate the relevant information to another location.

Crew members of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Resolute approach the 210-foot ship. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is working with private companies and government organizations to develop a mobile radiation detection system that the Coast Guard can use from a greater distance to determine whether the source of radiation on ships is a threat or is benign.
Phlips notes that while the SORDS program has many goals, not all need to be met exactly. “Obviously, the first thing is to actually deliver the instrument we propose on time, on schedule, on the truck when we should,” he says. “Obviously, it should detect what we promise it will detect. At this time, we certainly expect to meet both of those goals.” However, if the device does not identify radiation at the exact distances in the exact amount of time, the team will not necessarily constitute failure. “It’s not all or nothing,” Phlips explains.

The project includes many variables and concerns, including type of radiation and distance. The farther away the source, the less intense its radiation signal becomes. Another challenge for the MISTI team is time frame. Despite the NRL’s use of mainly commercial products, 24 months is a quick development cycle. With the need for design and testing stages, actual fabrication time for the instrument is just over a year.

The two-year total effort will support testing in a relevant environment but will not produce fieldable units. Any acquisition program would take into account user requirements and could demand an additional two to four years of development time.

The SORDS demonstrations will take place after the two-year development period. The devices will be tested in a quasi-realistic environment, but they are not intended for future fielding. DNDO personnel will extract performance data and compare that with cost data as well as talk to potential end users to determine a need for the capability.

Officials with the DNDO believe SORDS technology has an array of uses for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard and state and local law enforcement. Applications include rapid large area search, screening traffic at speed and checking small boats at sea.

Another required feature of the SORDS demonstration technology is mobility. “The ability to have something that’s mobile is actually fairly powerful,” Hagan explains. A movable device will help resource-constricted agencies make the best use of the tool. For example, Customs and Border Protection may need detection capability at a particular border crossing that is open only a few days a week. “It seems a bit inappropriate to dedicate a fixed resource there if you don’t have to,” Hagan states.

An additional benefit of mobility is the ability to create uncertainty. Homeland security officials could arrive at a checkpoint one morning and run the radiation detectors. Enemies will be unable to detect a pattern because of random use of the detector at various locations. Hagan shares that with the mobile capability, the single resource effectively blocks the plans of some foes. The mobility factor also enables a response capability for either emergency conditions or surge situations such as the Super Bowl or U.S. Open.

Unfortunately, building mobility into a large and complex tool is difficult. Hagan notes that the DNDO wrote mobility into the requests for solicitation because it did not want proposals for detectors that were inherently immobile.

While the DNDO has set many goals for the radiation detector developers, Hagan says real success will be a capability that can be put into the field to help improve the ability to detect radiation sources and special nuclear materials. If homeland security personnel have the ability to detect sources at great distances and can identify the source of radiation as benign or threat, then the tool will have many uses. Benign materials include many substances found in nature such as potassium, as well as manmade materials such as isotopes used in nuclear medicine. These isotopes decay quickly and are not a threat for use in a terrorist device.

Threat materials would include either large radioactive sources that are long lived, such as cobalt, or materials that terrorists could use in a dirty bomb, as well as special nuclear material used in nuclear weapons. “Those are threat materials, and we want to detect those … but we don’t want to respond to benign materials,” Hagan explains. Essentially, he says, the DNDO is looking for a device that automatically differentiates between the two types of materials so officials do not waste time pulling over vehicles driven by people who have nothing but a bag of kitty litter in the back seat.

Hagan states that such a device could monitor large flows of traffic, performing a virtual tag on vehicles with suspicious materials as they drive by. It also could scan small airplanes and boats. “That’s ultimately where we’d like this technology to find its application,” he shares.

The creation of the SORDS program is only one piece of a larger plan to focus on advancing techniques and technologies for radiation detection. The field has not received as much attention over the past 30 to 40 years since the end of the Cold War and the mothballing of the U.S. nuclear power business. According to Hagan, the DNDO is placing funding into the area of nuclear detection to stimulate people to think about a topic that has long been in the shadows. Advances in nanotechnology, software, artificial intelligence and computers can be applied to nuclear detection now to improve the process.

Hagan notes that the idea is to spend some serious money, time and focus on updating radiation technology to take advantage of all the new capabilities that have been developed over the last couple of decades. Though the program is relatively new, Hagan states that there has been a lot of positive belief that the ideas and projects in SORDS can certainly meet DNDO requirements, if not exceed them and meet higher goals. “I get a real sense of optimism that this program is going to [yield] some very exciting results,” he says.

Web Resources
Domestic Nuclear Detection Office:
U.S. Naval Research Laboratory:
General Electric Global Research:


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