DARPA Hails Smartphone-Sized Radiation Detectors

The networked devices were developed as part of the SIGMA program, which began in 2014 with the goal of creating a cost-effective, continuous radiation-monitoring network that can cover a large city or region.

DARPA recently announced that its SIGMA program has facilitated the development of a new tool to help in preventing "dirty bomb" attacks and other nuclear threats -- a network of smartphone-sized mobile devices that can detect the tiniest trace of radioactive materials. Used along with with larger detectors, these new devices "promise significantly enhanced awareness of radiation sources and greater advance warning of possible threats," according to DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).

SIGMA began in 2014 with the goal of creating a cost-effective, continuous radiation-monitoring network that can cover a large city or region. And more than 100 of the networked devices have been successfully tested at one of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's major transportation hubs. Besides being up to 10 times faster in detecting gamma and neutron radiation, they are one-tenth the cost of conventional sensors. The program achieved its price goal of 10,000 pocket-sized detectors for $400 per unit, according to DARPA's announcement.

"We are extremely pleased with SIGMA's achievements to date in advancing radiation detection technology to fit in a portable, pocket-sized form factor at a price that's a fraction of what current advanced sensors cost," said Vincent Tang, program manager in DARPA's Defense Sciences Office. "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."

The announcement said a large-scale test with more than 1,000 detectors is being planned for Washington, D.C., later this year.

"A key feature of the SIGMA architecture is that it allows for automated real-time detection, identification, and tracking of nuclear threats with continuous situational awareness via web-based command and control interfaces," Tang said. "We're continuously improving the system and evaluating it in laboratory and operational settings. The user feedback and support from our Port Authority collaboration, as well as government partners such as the Department of Homeland Security's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and the UK Home Office have been invaluable for SIGMA's development."

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