The Homeland Defense and Security Information Analysis Center (HDIAC, is a Department of Defense (DoD) sponsored organization with the purpose of leveraging the best expertise from industry, other government agencies and academia to solve the government’s toughest scientific and technical problems. HDIAC provides information, analysis and collaboration for organizations within the DoD and broader community. One of the ways HDIAC accomplishes this is by seeking out cutting-edge technology with the potential for DoD application. A recent technology highlighted by HDIAC was the development of a Lean-Sensing approach for the detection of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) hazards by a team at Science and Engineering Services in Columbia, Md. A Lean-Sensing approach offers the ability to cut exposure risk, response time and life-cycle cost through precision unmanned delivery of a detector early in the response sequence.

When a CBRN attack is suspected, the ability to quickly and remotely confirm the attack is vital to avoid further potential contamination. Researchers at Science and Engineering Services developed a Lean-Sensing approach that utilizes a small Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) plus a low-cost, quad-rotor Small Unmanned Aircraft System (SUAS). These systems can geo-locate hazards from a distance using Lidar, which can offer real-time eight digit latitudes and longitudes, and they can detect/identify/report the hazard via on-board camera and communications in minutes. On-board sensing can be as simple as M-8 Paper or more sophisticated and involve the use of a joint chemical agent detector (JCAD), radiation detector (Radiac), tactical biological detector (TacBio) or instantaneous bio-analyzer and collector (IBAC). Chemical/Biological/Radiological (CBR) sensors can be easily integrated on a commercial, off the shelf, multi-rotor drone.

SDS-Lite cloud detection and 3-D mapping. (Courtesy of JPEO-CBD/Released)
SDS-Lite cloud detection and 3-D mapping. (Courtesy of JPEO-CBD/Released)

In a preliminary construct of Lean-Sensing operations, a small Lidar detects and geo-locates a possible CBRN hazard in real-time with collaboration from Force Protection assets. A quad-rotor SUAS is then positioned to “perch and stare” and/or “perch and sense” by autonomously moving quickly to a hazard site to hover and survey based on situational need.  In the simplest embodiment, the quad-rotor SUAS with attached M-8 paper lands directly in a chemical and images any chemical change using an on-board camera in daylight or with headlights at night. Imagery is then streamed in real-time from the quad-rotor SUAS back to a ground station.

Alternatively, a more sophisticated architecture can be employed that involves a higher level of sensor integration with the drone. At the higher level, communications and power sharing can be hosted by the drone and data output presented as integrated information. This approach would be particularly useful if one wants to create a more advanced CBR drone with an integrated package of CBR sensors along with thermal and visible cameras. Sensor packages and cameras can also share battery power. A smart, lithium-polymer (Li-PO) rechargeable cartridge can provide a flight time of approximately 20 minutes. If a drone knows where it is going, 20 minutes is a significant amount of time.

The researchers recently tested key aspects of the Lean-Sensing construct. An SDS-Lite was used to detect, map and track a chemical cloud target measuring approximately 150 meters wide by 1,500 meters long. They were able to obtain a logical geo-located point that was then loaded into a quad-rotor drone mission plan. Based on the mission plan, the total mission time for travel and sensing/imaging was about four minutes, with another optional two minutes for a return flight with sample(s) for further analysis.

A typical scenario vectoring a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) drone via SDS-Lite could include the following:

  • T+0 minutes: A 3-D cloud target or suspected hazard site is detected, mapped and tracked.
  • T+1 minute: Cloud coordinates are transferred to drone mission plan, and drone is launched.
  • T+3 minutes: Vectored drone reaches cloud or hazard site for detection and reporting.
  • T+4 minutes: Detection is made at the cloud or surface, and data/imagery is transmitted.
On-board recorded and transmitted drone landing with M-8 paper detection and color change. (Courtesy of Science and Engineering Services/Released)
On-board recorded and transmitted drone landing with M-8 paper detection and color change. (Courtesy of Science and Engineering Services/Released)

Current technologies and systems, test results and Government and IR&D investments all indicate that the materials and preliminary methods for executing Lean-Sensing are now available for geo-locating hazards in real-time by optical means. The hazards can be visually checked and initially identified using a VTOL drone with sensor payload vectored to the hazard location. Aircraft and sensors can be as simple as a Phantom 2 quad-rotor drone with M-8 Paper or as sophisticated as an S1000 octo-rotor drone with an integrated CBR sensor package including JCAD + IBAC or TacBio + Radiac, such as AN/UDR-13.

Based on the results to date, the methods and emerging capabilities demonstrated seem to indicate an effective construct that could be ready for a series of field trials in an advanced technology demonstration. The Lean-Sensing approach offers real potential for cutting exposure risk, response time and life-cycle cost by precision unmanned delivery of a detector early in the response sequence.

About the Authors:

Coorg R Prasad is Vice President of R&D at Science and Engineering Services, LLC in Columbia, Md. Previously, he was an NRC senior research fellow at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. He holds a Ph.D. in engineering from State University of New York at Stony Brook, an M.S. from Brown University, and a B.E. from Mysore University, India.

In H. Hwang is the Chief Scientist at Science and Engineering Services in Columbia, Md. He holds a Ph.D. in physics and was previously the chief designer of the Joint Biological Standoff Detection System (JBSDS) for the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense of U.S. DoD.

Robert M. Serino is Director of Operations at Science and Engineering Services in Columbia, Md. He served for 20 years in the U.S. Army within the fields of operations, acquisition, intelligence, and chemical/biological/nuclear at the Pentagon, Joint Commands and U.S. Army Organizations. He holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Brandeis University and a B.S. in chemistry from Loyola University.