Connectivity, reliability and ruggedness rank at the top of the key challenges in operating radiation detection equipment in the field, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official says.

CBP is currently “creeping” toward wireless solutions to do data reachback with its radiation detection devices but the rugged environments that officers in field operate in make this difficult, Kathy McCormick, an official with the CBP Laboratories and Scientific Services Teleforensic Center says at an Industry Day hosted by the Defense Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO). There is no Internet in some areas although it is often available at seaport and land ports of entry, she says.

Currently most data reachback is done via USB ports, but with 450,000 alarms to adjudicate in 2012, this means a lot of plugging and unplugging of connectors, which leads to them eventually stop working, McCormick says.

So reliability is an issue and “we need stuff that will hold up over the long-term,” McCormick says.

The detection instruments also need to last a long time, McCormick says. When the government buys something, it will continue to rely on a device even though five generations of newer technology have come out in the meantime so the seller needs to have a plan to replace piece parts even if the original system is no longer manufactured, she says.

When it comes to setting requirements for data reachback, McCormick says that CBP has moved away from over prescribing. She says the agency has learned to let industry be creative in solving problems. CBP officers need to be able to localize the source of a potential threat and then be able to resolve whether it’s a threat or not.

If reachback is necessary then the spectroscopy data combined with the information an officer provides is needed for someone to adjudicate an alarm. CBP in October scanned with a radiation portal monitor its one-billionth container entering the country and with 450,000 alarms in 2012 anything that can reduce the number of false alarms will help, says a DNDO official.

Sustainment of some devices can be a challenge, CBP and Coast Guard officials say. The good news is that a lot of the handheld instruments currently deployed are self calibrating, which is a “huge” help, says CBP Officer Ray Kraft, program manager for the CBP Office of Field Operations Non-Intrusive Inspection Detection Equipment. However, if equipment needs to be sent back for repair or upgrade, a spare is needed if available, otherwise the mission is impaired, he says.

The Coast Guard doesn’t do depot level repair on its radiation detection instruments which means if fixes or upgrades need to be done, it has to be done by the vendor and it typically costs “a lot of money” and means a device isn’t available for personnel to use for several weeks, says Mike Washeleski of the service’s Maritime Radiation Detection Program. As long as a device works, “we use it,” he says.

“We want simple, reliable devices tat done need a lot of maintenance,” Washeleski says.