Nuclear, Biological, Chemical Threat Detectors Put through Paces at Indy 500

DARPA, DHS sensors successfully networked for first time at this year’s running of the Indianapolis 500

Chemical Threat Detectors
Soldiers of the 38th Infantry Division marched over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway brick line to the sounds of thunderous applause. Gen. Michael X. Garrett, Army Forces Command Commanding General, saw the troops off during their departure ceremony. Approximately 600 division soldiers are slated to deploy to the Middle East in support of Task Force Spartan to help foster partnerships, increase security and self-reliance throughout the region. (U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Joshua A. Syberg / Released)

As some 300,000 cheering race fans packed the stands at this year’s Indianapolis 500, behind the scenes an advanced network of sensors kept constant vigilance, providing security officials real-time awareness of any potential weapon-of-mass-destruction/terror (WMD/WMT) threat. The deployment marked the first time that DARPA’s SIGMA+ network seamlessly integrated radiological and chemical sensors with biological threat sensors from the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Office.

The joint DARPA-DHS sensor coverage demonstrated the powerful scaling capabilities of the SIGMA+ network. SIGMA+ expands on DARPA’s SIGMA program, which detects illicit radioactive and nuclear materials by incorporating sensors to identify chemical, biological, and explosives threats.

“The Indy 500 provided an excellent venue to demonstrate our ability to provide a composite threat picture across all modalities — radiation/nuclear, chemical, and biological,” said Mark Wrobel, SIGMA+ program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office. “The SIGMA+ network enabled real-time alerts of possible threats to be overlaid on a digital map of the raceway, so security staff could identify, with high accuracy, the type and location of a potential WMD or WMT threat.”

DARPA collected background air-sampling data using new chemical threat sensors known as ChemSIGMA at the 2018 Indy 500. In fall 2018, DARPA conducted additional testing, which involved releasing safe chemical simulants in the empty speedway, to determine sensor efficacy in precisely identifying type and location of a plume’s source. The sensors performed extremely well, proving the system’s maturity for a full-scale, all-modality deployment at the 2019 Indianapolis 500.

“Integrating our fixed and handheld SIGMA radiation detectors, which are now being deployed operationally, with ChemSIGMA sensors and DHS’s bio sensors on the SIGMA+ network demonstrated the networking of sensors for simultaneous, wide-area monitoring of multiple threats,” Wrobel said. “We’d like to thank the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department for their support in executing this demonstration. We look forward to working with them and other local, state and federal partners on future pilot activities to further refine the system with the goal of transitioning the capability to DoD and DHS users.”

DHS’s CWMD office also gained valuable experience from the Indy 500 deployment. The Mobile Deployment Detection Program, or MDDP, has been supporting the Indy 500 for five years to augment the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s radiation and nuclear detection capabilities. In addition, this year, the Indy Police Department and CWMD collaborated on the next-generation bio-detection capability technical demonstration. The Biological Detection for the 21st Century (BD21) tech demo was installed at the motor speedway specifically to learn about the complex environmental conditions present on race weekend.

“Data collected and lessons learned from the tech demo unit in Indy will be joined with data collected from around the country to support the design, development, and future deployment of the BD21 system to safeguard our nation against biothreats,” said Assistant Secretary, James McDonnell. “We thank Metro Police Department, and look forward to continued collaboration on this critical effort.”

DARPA researchers who developed the SIGMA+ sensors and network include: Two Six Labs and Physical Sciences Inc.