Together, Raytheon and research firm Physical Sciences Inc. have formed one of three industry teams that will demonstrate advanced technologies for a nationwide project called the Radiation Awareness and Interdiction Network, or RAIN. The vision is to develop a network of sensors, communications systems and analytical tools that will work together to detect, identify and attribute vehicle-borne threats before they reach a protected region or site.It's not like there are no detectors now; the issue is improving them to reduce the number of false hits, while still finding real problem sources of radiation, and doing it faster.
The issue is normally occurring radioactive material, or NORM, a buzzword in detection circles. NORM shipments might be anything from radioactive isotopes in medical materials to a truckload of bananas, which naturally contain the radioactive isotope potassium-40. Or it could be any number of other, innocuous materials.
“One study found a third of nuisance alarms at some border crossings were caused by shipments of kitty litter,” said Dr. Erik Johnson, a Raytheon nuclear engineer and deputy program manager.
Fast forward to the present, and the government’s advanced technology demonstration program. In a two-mile strip of roadway at the Virginia Tech Smart Highway Facility, cars and trucks maneuver past checkpoints where researchers measure the performance of different RAIN concepts.
The big advance in dealing with NORM was a software fix to implement a proprietary algorithm called Poisson Clutter Split, or PCS, which processes energy spectra and suppresses clutter — reducing noise levels in the radiation it reads.
If there's a real breakthrough here, it's the speed with which traffic can be monitored. Currently, trucks have to be slowly driven though a screening area; with this system, the goal is to monitor cars and trucks going at highway speed. Raytheon decided to take advantage of existing infrastructure to house the monitors.
Second, the team addressed the economics of implementing the overall system. They installed the PERM radiation detectors as an upgrade to the Raytheon-built, all-electronic tolling systems now in use on roadways from Florida to Israel.It's always easier to mount a new box to existing infrastructure than create new trusses all along the highways. This turns the toll collection system into a multi-spectrum security scan. Since the toll systems are already linked to other state infrastructure, typically Highway Patrol and the toll collection networks, the radiation detector signals would probably be able to use the same links - wired or wireless. The obvious down side, though, is that the way someone with a dirty bomb gets around this is simply to stay off those roads. First steps, I suppose.
The detectors become part of the elevated, drive-through gantries that have replaced toll booths on major highways around the world. The same vehicle timing and identification data that's used for accurate tolling can help with threat detection, discrimination and vehicle attribution.
Again, radiation detection is nothing particularly new and has been in place in shipping ports since at least the aftermath of 9/11. I don't believe I've told this story here on the blog, but a few years ago I went through a period where work sent me to Toronto, Ontario several times to help a vendor and our company resolve some production logjams. On one return trip, I had lined up to go through customs for entry to the US. Since I had nothing to do other than look around, I was just standing there, when I suddenly found a security agent alongside me with something in his hand about the size of a small ham radio VHF or UHF transceiver - only it wasn't one. I didn't get a good look, but it was a dark-colored box with some different colored LEDs on the front of it, and I think it had some sort of antenna-looking device on it. I heard the agent say, "Over here" in a loud voice to no one in particular, and a group descended on a woman in the next line to my left and a couple of places in front of me. If you were to look at her, you'd probably say "cancer patient" to yourself. She produced some sort of letter, apparently explaining why she was radioactive, and after perhaps a minute, the agents went back to where they came from, with cheerful-sounding, "have a nice day" greetings all around.
That impressed me. Given the size of the room, they had to have been more than 50 feet from her, yet they quickly isolated her and came to investigate without impacting the rest of us waiting in line.
A quick search for news of a contract for Raytheon and Physical Sciences for RAIN doesn't return a recognizable hit, so it looks like this is still research for a new system. Aside from governments, there aren't likely to be customers for this.
I'm waiting for the knock on the door from Federal Agents who think nobody could possibly have enough kitty litter to set off their detectors. They haven't seen enough multi-cat households.