Science

DARPA deploys a thousand radiation detectors in DC "manhunt"

DARPA deploys a thousand radia...
A map of the National Mall in Washington, DC showing the location of the SIGMA mobile radiation detectors as deployment participants moved around the city
A map of the National Mall in Washington, DC showing the location of the SIGMA mobile radiation detectors as deployment participants moved around the city
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A map of the National Mall in Washington, DC showing the location of the SIGMA mobile radiation detectors as deployment participants moved around the city
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A map of the National Mall in Washington, DC showing the location of the SIGMA mobile radiation detectors as deployment participants moved around the city

Recently, a geneticist was mysteriously abducted in Washington DC, leading to the US government deploying a small army of detectives to foil a dirty bomb plot. At least, that was the fictional scenario of a DARPA field test that saw a thousand volunteers equipped with smartphone-sized radiation detectors fan out over the National Mall in a radioactive scavenger hunt to test the progress of the agency's SIGMA project, which is tasked with developing technology to combat nuclear terrorism.

Nuclear terrorism is one of the top nightmares of security services. Not only is the prospect of a dirty bomb involving radioactive materials dispersed by conventional explosives alarming, but tracking down illegal nuclear materials in an urban setting requires covering far too large an area for fixed sensors. Since 2014, DARPA has been working on how to produce a portable sensor array based on low-cost, high-efficiency, radiation sensors networked by smartphone networks to detect gamma and neutron radiation and evaluate the information in real time

According to DARPA, the SIGMA array was first tested in New York and New Jersey using 100 sensors. For the Washington test, 1,000 sensors were carried in backpacks by hundreds of ROTC cadets from the universities in the National Capital Region, midshipmen from the US Naval Academy, and DARPA personnel coordinated by the University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). The volunteers were provided with the plot of a scientist kidnapped by masked men and sent on a scavenger hunt to gather clues to save the scientist and foil the terrorists using the detectors.

According to the agency, the purpose of the test was to help the SIGMA team to determine how effective the sensors were as mobile network nodes over an area of five square miles (13 km2). The information from the test will be used to refine algorithms for the version of the system expected to be operational by 2018.

"The SIGMA system performed very well, and we collected and analyzed a huge amount of streaming data as we watched in real-time as participants covered a large portion of DC," says Vincent Tang, DARPA program manager. "The data collected is already proving invaluable for further development of the system, and we're excited that SIGMA is on track to provide US cities an enhanced layer of defense against radiological and nuclear threats."

DARPA plans citywide and region-wide continuous area tests sometime next year.

The video below outlines the Washington DC test.

Source: DARPA

SIGMA Deployment Test of 1,000 Detectors

11 comments
MattII
A geneticist gets kidnapped and they're worried about a dirty bomb? Now a plague bomb I could understand, but a dirty bomb is well outside said expert's area of expertise.
notarichman
at MattII; yep, i think everyone will notice that! editor, editor, where are you?
MordiChirnomas
And they couldn't use drones, why?
Bob
It might make more sense to put a detector on every Fedex, UPS, and USPS vehicle. They seem to cover about everywhere on a daily basis. And I also wandered what a geneticist had to do with a dirty bomb. A physicist or a chemist might make sense but a geneticist?
Nairda
They may instead stumble on how much radiation is actually released through reactor waste on to the public.
DannyMore
A Bomb? Ha! How about a plague set up. And you don't need a bomb. A simple spay can will do... Just saying.
Mexoplex 5 Million
actually, they have detectors in a lot of those silly multicolored statues all over downtown DC. they are elephants, donkeys and bears .... i think the Agency put them there.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
It seems like a dirty bomb could easily be hidden in a cheap lead case. A co-worker of mine served on a nuclear aircraft carrier. They did a sweep of the whole ship and found the highest level of radioactivity on the deck.
ljaques
Let's play Nuclear Pokemon! Some of their checklist papers looked kind of kindergartenish, didn't they? I agree with arming FedEX and UPS trucks with detectors like the fire trucks already have. And drones would be much quicker and do a more thorough search pattern. Perhaps combining the two would be the best bet. And, of course, I'm also wondering why a geneticist would be associated with any bomb, let alone a radioactive one.
Wolf0579
We need an app like GammaPix on every smartphone that can detect radiation. They can constantly monitor background radiation, and when they get a "hit", they record intensity, time, and location, and can "phone home" an alert in real time. They use a high resolution imaging cmos, that is blacked out, so no photons can hit it, then look for the video noise radiation induces. Enough apps like that and phones they can work on, and nuclear terrorism will be a thing of the past.