DARPA tests smartphone-sized radiation sensor in New York

A DARPA program successfully demonstrated the capabilities of the small detectors it has been developing to facilitate a network of continuous radiation monitoring.

A federal government defense agency program announced this week that it has now developed and tested wearable cost-effective devices that can detect radiation.

Those sensors would be part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s SIGMA program, focused on creating a continuous radiation-monitoring network that could cover a city or region. SIGMA said it has “successfully developed and demonstrated” networked, low-cost smartphone-sized devices that can detect radioactive materials, and be paired with larger detectors attached to major infrastructure or inside cars.

More than 100 sensors small enough to be easily worn on a person’s belt were tested for a month at a Port Authority of New York and New Jersey major transportation hub, according to a DARPA news release. The new sensor network increased 100-fold the ability to locate and identify sources of radiation, the release said, but all identified radiation sources during the test were nonthreatening.

The release noted the system was able to identify the source’s location, intensity and type of radiation.


Plans are also in the works for a test deployment later this year of more than 1,000 detectors in Washington, D.C.

“DARPA is planning to demonstrate SIGMA’s full city- and regional-scale, continuous wide-area monitoring capability in 2017 and to transition the operational system to local, state, and federal entities in 2018,” according to the release.

The sensors are one-tenth the cost of conventional sensors — 10,000 pocket-sized detectors for $400 per unit, according to the release. And they are up to 10 times faster in detecting gamma and neutron radiation.

SIGMA’s eventual goal: network 10,000 sensors in real time, a DARPA spokesperson told FedScoop.

“The ability to network hundreds, and soon many thousands of these smart detectors would make cities in the United States and around the world safer against a wide variety of radiological and nuclear threats,” said Vincent Tang, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, said in a release.


Another agency is also working on wearable detection devices.

The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office Acquisition Division of the Department of Homeland Security also announced this summer they had awarded contracts to several companies for research and development that would lead to an “advanced wearable detection technology with optimized gamma/neutron detection response, spatial tracking and localization, PTU networking and reachback capability, smart device integration and optimized size, weight and power,” according to the solicitation.

The largest award went to Leidos Inc. for more than $5 million.

While DARPA’s SIGMA program is focused on networking to reduce detector costs while increasing capabilities, the DHS program has other focuses, a DARPA spokesperson said to FedScoop.

The awards were part of the Wearable Intelligent Nuclear Detection effort, known as the WIND. That initiative also has a networking component, the spokesperson said, but the focus is to develop next-generation backpack or wearable systems.


The WIND sensors individually would have “much greater sensitivity and detection capabilities” than DARPA’s SIGMA detectors, the spokesperson said, but DARPA’s program allows for mass distribution, and the WIND program would deploy fewer sensors.

Both systems would be used for first responders, the spokesperson said.

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