The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently tested smartphone-sized radiation detectors in a Washington mall to locate small nuclear weapons or ‘dirty bombs.’
Volunteers carrying the radiation detectors walked for hours around the National Mall searching for clues in a “whodunit” scavenger hunt to locate a geneticist who’d been mysteriously abducted.
The geneticist and his abduction were fictitious. But the challenge this scavenger hunt was designed to address is real: The need to detect even small quantities of radioactive material that terrorists might try to bring into an urban area with the intent of detonating a “dirty bomb,” or worse.
By getting volunteers to walk all day looking for clues, the DARPA-sponsored exercise provided the largest test yet of DARPA’s SIGMA program, which is developing networked sensors that can provide dynamic, real-time radiation detection over large urban areas.
A key element of SIGMA, which began in 2014, has been to develop and test low-cost, high-efficiency, radiation sensors that detect gamma and neutron radiation.
The detectors, which do not themselves emit radiation, are networked via smartphones to provide city, state, and federal officials real-time awareness of potential nuclear and radiological threats such as dirty bombs, which combine conventional explosives and radioactive material to increase their disruptive potential.
The 1,000-detector deployment in Washington, D.C., marked the largest number of SIGMA mobile detectors ever tested at one time and was a demonstration of the program’s ability to fuse the data provided by all those sensors to create minute-to-minute situational awareness of nuclear threats.
“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 D.C.,” said 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 U.S. cities an enhanced layer of defense against radiological and nuclear threats.”
The SIGMA program appears to be ahead of terrorist organizations getting their hands on to nuclear weapons. As per available information, no known terrorist organization so far has got its hands on to any fissile material from which nuclear weapons could be made.
Washington had long suspected Iran before it nuclear deal with the west, and earlier to that Iraq under Saddam Hussain, as possible ‘proliferators’ of nuclear weapons to add to their titles of ‘state sponsors of terrorism.’
However, no evidence was found to confirm transfer of nuclear weapons or technology to any terrorist group from these so called ‘rouge’ states.