That ambulance you see racing to an emergency may soon also protect you from a dirty bomb attack.
In the nation’s capital, Fire and Emergency Medical Services vehicles responding to emergencies in recent months have also been hunting for hidden dirty-bomb threats.
SIGMA is a DARPA program that has produced cutting-edge detection devices that will make the United States far safer against a wide range of nuclear and radiological threats. Vehicles armed with this new tech are the next step to giving cities across America an advanced defense against this serious threat.
DARPA has proven that SIGMA devices can detect even the teeniest, tiniest radioactive material traces.
Authorities can receive instant critical data and track nuclear threats with this new system.
The mobile SIGMA devices, smartphone-sized and larger for vehicles, could be combined with larger detectors installed along major roadways, bridges and other fixed infrastructure. This collaboration of state-of-the art detection tech could provide a far greater advance warning to protect Americans against nuclear and radiological threats.
The “dirty bomb” threat
SIGMA will provide an important advantage. This new tech can help stop attacks involving radiological “dirty bombs” and nuclear threats.
The goal is to immediately detect someone with radioactive material on American soil. Early detection is critical to prevent someone detonating a dirty bomb or nuclear device.
A “dirty bomb” combines a regular explosive like dynamite, with radioactive material. When the device explodes, it disperses the radiological material.
Terrorists have been interested in using radioactive and nuclear material for attacks for quite some time. For example, a terrorist plot to target U.S. landmarks with WMDs was foiled in 2004.
What is SIGMA?
The SIGMA devices detect gamma and neutron radiation emanating from sources.
The first part is advanced detection through state-of-the-art tech. The second is the program’s ability to fuse the data provided by all those sensors and provide minute-to-minute surveillance of nuclear threats.
SIGMA also notifies the authorities, providing immediate crucial data.
Throughout testing, SIGMA has proven it is so good that it could pinpoint the location, assess the intensity of a source and report the specific type of radiation. The tech can give city, state, and federal officials early warning and critical data to tailor a rapid response.
And very importantly, SIGMA was so good that it was also able to distinguish between “natural” radiation and possible dangerous radiological threats.
The detectors do not emit radiation and only detect it.
There are two types of SIGMA radiation detectors. For the vehicles in this recent test, the larger version was used. Some estimates place the large SIGMA detectors as twice as sensitive as previous tech and approximately one-tenth the cost.
The second version is smaller and can fit in a pocket or worn on a police officer’s belt. Estimates place it at ten percent of the cost of current sensors and up to 10 times faster in detecting gamma and neutron radiation.
It has been an enormous challenge to develop low-cost and lightweight powerful detectors that are highly accurate and easy to use – but DARPA has managed to crack it.
Defending DC against dirty bombs
In the recent Washington DC tests, DARPA kitted out about 73 devices on Fire and Emergency Medical Services ambulances.
This very smart approach leveraged the fact that emergency vehicles already regularly travel throughout cities every single day responding to medical and fire emergencies. In the DC test, the vehicles travelled throughout the city scanning for threats during more than 100,000 hours. The vehicles clocked more than 150,000 miles.
While responding to those in need of help, the Fire and EMS teams also automatically detected and mapped thousands of radiation sources. By equipping the ambulances with these advanced radiation detectors, cities can be regularly and thoroughly scanned for radiological threats.
For the first time, a background radiation map throughout the Capital was created.
It is important to build a picture of “natural” background radiation so it can help make identifying a threat even faster. Things like medical facilities that may provide PET scans and X-ray or even granite can yield radiation and be detected.
Last year, SIGMA was also successfully tested with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey using more than 100 SIGMA sensors.
The DC deployment of SIGMA will be used to further refine the tech for potential future deployment. While it was used on ambulances in this instance, DARPA is looking at other vehicles and ways to deploy in other cities.
SIGMA could be used to protect cities across the country. The military, both active duty and National Guard, could potentially use it in emergencies.
Next steps for the program include full city and regional testing this year and potentially systems in operation at local, state, and federal levels in 2018.
Allison Barrie is a defense specialist with experience in more than 70 countries who consults at the highest levels of defense and national security, a lawyer with four postgraduate degrees, and author of the definitive guide, Future Weapons: Access Granted, on sale in 30 countries. Barrie hosts the new hit podcast “Tactical Talk” where she gives listeners direct access to the most fascinating Special Operations warriors each week and to find out more about the FOX Firepower host and columnist you can click here or follow her on Twitter @allison_barrie and Instagram @allisonbarriehq.