Charles River Analytics has received a $1 million contract from the Department of Homeland Security to further leverage the research and development company’s expertise in autonomous navigation to develop drones integrated with radiation detection sensors to inspect venues and facilities for dirty bombs.

The two-year, Phase 2 Small Business Innovation Research contract was awarded by the DHS Science and Technology Directorate in late 2020 and follows a Phase 1 award to the company to explore the feasibility of using small, commercially available unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) integrated with autonomous capabilities for radiological and nuclear detection, Richard Wronski, vice president of Sensing Perception and Applied Robotics and a principal scientist at Charles River, told HSR on April 12. Ultimately, the company expects to explore the use of the technology to detect chemical and biological threats and hazards, he said.

Currently, DHS Mobile Detection Deployment Units (MDDUs) complement local first responders with surge capacity to manually inspect stadiums and other facilities for the presence of potential radiological threats with detection systems carried in backpacks prior to major events like the Super Bowl. This is a manual and time-consuming process that might involve dozens of individuals, Wronski said.

Under the Monitoring and Inspecting Dirty Nukes Including Generating Heat Maps of Terrain (MIDNIGHT) effort, the goal is to demonstrate that just one or two people could deploy radiological sensing drones to complete the inspection currently performed by the MDDUs, he said.

In addition to stadiums as a use case, the program is also looking at parking facilities such as garages and car parks, and port facilities and container yards, Wronski said. Each use case presents different structures and terrain features for the drone to navigate and maneuver and then process with the radiation detection sensor, he said.

Charles River has developed autonomous capabilities such as drone swarming, what Wronski calls “collaborative autonomy,” for other customers, including the Defense Department. The autonomous capabilities include the path planning, understanding the 3-dimensional obstacles and surfaces, and contending with the wind to enable maneuvering without an operator. In addition to UAS, Charles River has developed autonomous capabilities for ground-based and marine-based assets, he said.

In addition to doing drone autonomy work for DoD, Charles River has also done autonomy work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration related to detection and traction of mammals, sea lions and other species “in odd places around the globe, Wronski said. All this work is being leveraged for, and to accelerate, the MIDNIGHT program, he added.

Initially under MIDNIGHT, a single drone will be used but the goal is to expand to larger UAS fleets, he said.

With such high levels of autonomy, a single operator can set up the drone or drones, key in the mission, and then the unmanned system or systems fly off and conduct the inspection, Wronski said.

Charles River is partnered with CapeSym, which is providing the radiation detection sensors. Wronski said the company’s detectors also provide directionality, which helps in detecting the direction of the source of a dirty bomb, helping to expedite the inspection process.

Under MIDNIGHT, Charles River is working with CapeSym to miniaturize and reconfigure the radiation detectors to be integrated on a small drone. Both companies are based in the Boston area.

Charles River will employ U.S.-made drones for the project and is looking at one produced by

Inspired Flight although the goal is for the payload to work with just about any UAS, Wronski said.

During the next two years of the Phase 2 effort, Wronski said there will be demonstrations of different elements of the solution and by the end have an initial prototype that includes the detector and autonomy payload flying with limited capability to demonstrate the concept and provide a foundation to build on. From there, the goals would be to expand to a multi-drone fleet and begin adding chemical and biological detection capabilities, he said.

Additional work could come through another Phase 2 award or a Phase 3 contract, he said.