aerial view of city of Boston with buildings

Las Vegas’ connection to the Boston Marathon

aerial view of city of Boston with buildings
Aerial view of the survey route.

Nevada National Security Site’s Remote Sensing Laboratory flyovers help provide security

What do the Boston Marathon, Presidential Inaugurations, New Year’s Eve Las Vegas, national political conventions, and even the Super Bowl have in common?

They’re all monitored by the Nevada National Security Site’s (NNSS) Remote Sensing Laboratory (RSL) Aerial Measurement System (AMS), with locations at Joint Base Andrews and Nellis Air Force Base, part of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST).

This year marks the seventh time that RSL’s AMS team will support the Boston Marathon, having surveyed the event multiple times since 2014. Measurements are taken with a U.S. Department of Energy-owned Bell 412 helicopter equipped with radiation-sensing technology that flies in a low-altitude grid pattern over the marathon route. The measurements are combined to produce a baseline map of naturally occurring radiation, which NEST provides to the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services.

Gentleman in helicopter flying over Boston
The Remote Sensing Laboratory Aerial Measurement System team surveys the Boston Marathon route.

These background surveys are a normal part of security and emergency preparedness activities. “For these events a full team, which includes two pilots, a mechanic, a mission manager, a home team scientist, a data analyst, and an equipment specialist, deploys to ensure a successful mission,” said AMS Supervisor Jacqueline Brandon. “The survey flights generally take two days to complete. With the addition of data processing, planning, and airspace coordination, the whole event takes hundreds of hours.”

Combined, RSL teams cover hundreds of square miles of terrain every year, collecting background data and supplying it to local safety officials, helping ensure the safety of special events. The highly skilled service provided by the teams has become so well-known and well-respected that the list of nationally heralded, big-name events contacting them to provide survey services grows every year.

The Boston Marathon itself has been held every year since 1897, except for in 2020 when it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It attracts roughly 30,000 entrants and 500,000 spectators each year, making it New England’s most widely viewed sporting event.

Seven team members standing in front of the Bell 412 helicopter
The Remote Sensing Laboratory Aerial Measurement System team with their Bell 412 helicopter.

“I’m proud of the work we do for Boston Marathon and other events,” Brandon said. “The NNSS’s mission of national security is linked to public safety in more ways than you might think. It’s an amazing opportunity, and I’m glad to be part of it.”