NNSS, Virginia Tech partner to demonstrate UAS radiation detection capabilities

As the sun rose over the Palanquin Crater at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), scientists and researchers from Virginia Tech and the NNSS’ Remote Sensing Laboratory gathered to perform innovative test flights on a unique Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS).

“We’re doing an aerial radiological survey of the Palanquin site, and it’s actually a good use for UAS,” said Paul Guss, an NNSS distinguished scientist.

The Palanquin nuclear test took place at the NNSS in April 1965 as part of the Plowshare Program, leaving behind the perfect venue for these test flights. This area was chosen because the low levels of radiation that remain allow the UAS to gather realistic data. Using this technology will allow data to be safely gathered in the event of a radiological incident.

“If there was a nuclear detonation,” Guss said, “you would have to send people in to get samples. With the UAS, you can determine what the right sites are to go in and get your samples. We understand that, if there was a detonation, we would want to know who did it very quickly.”

This partnership between Virginia Tech and the NNSS will help gather valuable data to aid national security. Andrew Morgan, a pilot from Virginia Tech, provided more insight into this state-of-the-art technology: “We are flying a prototype H3D Apollo radiation detector which uses CZT crystals around and over, and possibly in, the Palanquin Crater to survey the plume and contamination area.”

CZT (cadmium, zinc, telluride) is a semiconductor that can be used to detect radiation. Virginia Tech’s unique system, which has the ability to send two aircraft up at once, was custom built specifically for the NNSS. The system uses one aircraft to direct the other. One is sent directly over the operator, which sends signals to the other aircraft, which makes the measurements. They can control, navigate and send the data right back.

“If you don’t have a device like an aerial system or UAS, then you’re putting people in harm’s way to get that data,” Guss said, “so you’re incurring a health risk to people.”

This important technique will help scientists understand where to go to do their sampling without the risks to personnel.

“It demonstrates a capability for nuclear forensics and attribution we’re establishing here at the NNSS,” Guss said.