Drones To Be Deployed As Nuclear Fallout Detectors

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have developed radiation-detection pods that can monitor airborne radiation using drones, without endangering human flight crews.
The "Harvester" system is designed to detect detonations of nuclear weapons. It can guide a drone to the site of a nuclear explosion by following the plume of gamma radiation where no onboard pilot could safely venture.
The system could also be used to monitor fallout from accidents at nuclear reactors, Sandia officials said.
Two years ago, on March 14, 2011, the National Nuclear Security Administration sent flight crews to Japan to monitor airborne and ground contamination from the still developing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant.
The crews arrived four days after the 24-foot tsunami had swept the plant, and in the ensuing 10 weeks they logged 507 flight hours crisscrossing the skies over Japan in a Beechcraft C-12 twin engine turboprop out of nearby Yokota Air Base.
The crews produced vital maps of the plume of radiation escaping from the crippled reactors.
Had Sandia's Harvester system been available then, the NNSA might have flown drones instead.
"The researcher tells me that the Harvester system could be used to monitor radioactive emissions from a reactor accident if the activity level was high enough, and that the pods (while still in the developmental stage) were even considered for use at Fukushima, but never got past being an idea," Sandia spokesman Neal Singer told me in an email.
"Things might be different once the system is fully deployed."
Two of the system's three pods sample the air as the drone cruises at about 200 miles per hour, trapping particles in paper filters where they are analyzed in flight by radiation sensors.
Those pods performed well at a demonstration last year at the Grand Forks Air Force Base, according to a Sandia press release penned by Singer.
"While the tests did not include any radioisotope releases, the pods were able to collect and identify naturally occurring radioisotopes of lead and bismuth produced from the radioactive decay of atmospheric radon."
The third pod processes data from four radiation detectors to help guide the drone toward the source of gamma radiation. The data is relayed to the operator of the Harvester system, who conveys it to the pilot in the drone's ground-control station.
"The operator will see a vector that shows peak plume intensity up and to the right, let’s say,” Sanders said in the release. “It’s the equivalent of a guide saying, ‘You’re getting warmer.’”
The pods are designed to be attached to the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, a larger, heavier version of the well known Predator drone.
The researchers are also developing a pod that can take large air samples to be analyzed for radioactive gases, such as radioisotopes of xenon. Scientists studying the Fukushima meltdowns have lamented a relative lack of data on xenon releases.

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