DARPA demonstrates radioactive threat detection system

To test the system, the agency equipped a fleet of Washington, D.C., fire and emergency medical services vehicles with detectors capable of identifying nuclear threats.

By Ryan Maass

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency completed a demonstration for its SIGMA program using ambulances equipped with radiation detectors.

The program is an effort to bolster domestic "dirty bomb" detection and reaction in the United States. During its recent test, conducted in Washington, D.C., in February, the agency equipped a fleet of D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services vehicles with detectors capable of identifying nuclear threats.


Ambulances carried the equipment for a seven-month period, allowing DARPA researchers to monitor radiation levels throughout the city. The agency says the demonstration provided the first city-scale, real-time map of radiation levels in Washington, D.C.

"D.C. Fire and EMS was an invaluable partner and testbed for SIGMA's vehicle-scale detectors," program manager Vincent Tang said in a press release. "The data gathered during the D.C. deployment are helping to further fine-tune the SIGMA system for potential deployment in major cities across the country and for emergency use by active-duty military units and National Guard civil support teams."

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D.C. Fire and EMS deputy fire chief John Donnelly went on to praise DARPA's approach to boosting detection capabilities by improving individual detectors.

"By not only putting more spectrometers into the field but also networking them so that the data is continuously collected and analyzed with other, and prior, information as a whole, SIGMA laid the groundwork for a monitoring system that can incorporate intelligence holistically into risk assessment," he said.


Under the SIGMA program, DARPA researchers developed two types of radiation detectors, including larger units designed for emergency vehicles, and a smaller version the size of a smartphone that can be worn on a belt. The devices are connected to a network of detectors installed along major roads, bridges and other infrastructure assets.

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