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Site-Directed Research and Development (SDRD)

Started in 2002 by Congressional authorization, the Site-Directed Research and Development (SDRD) Program is an essential element of the NNSS technical enterprise. The SDRD program is our premier science and technology venue and primary source for discovery and innovation for NNSS national security missions. Similar to the laboratory-directed research and development (LDRD) programs at the NNSA National Laboratories and production plants, SDRD enhances the technical vitality of the NNSS by addressing the following core areas:

  • developing and demonstrating innovative ideas and technologies to advance new solutions to national and global security needs;
  • enhancing core competencies required for current and emerging technical missions; and
  • retaining and recruiting individuals with critical skills.

Proposals are solicited every year and about two dozen projects tied to principal thrust areas are funded annually. An annual report is released every April for the previous year’s projects.

SDRD Highlights

SDRD Project Team Conducts Small UAS Radiological Survey Flights at NNSS

ECAM Mars Perseverance
Photographed left to right are Alan Horzewski (USI), Todd Bagley (USI),
Manny Manard (STL), Rusty Trainham (STL), Hovig Yaralian (USI), and
Paul Guss (RSL–Nellis).

An SDRD project team traveled to the NNSS in December 2019 to conduct a small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) radiation detection, measurement, and mapping mission. The team successfully performed radiation scans over two Yucca Flat test locations using a small UAS equipped with a high-efficiency radiation detector. This flyover mission was sponsored by the SDRD UAS initiative and led by Rusty Trainham, a senior principal scientist from the NNSS Special Technologies Laboratory, and Paul Guss, a distinguished scientist from the NNSS Remote Sensing Laboratory–Nellis. The unmanned aircraft used was a hexacopter developed by Unmanned Systems, Inc. (USI), and the radiation detector used was an Apollo gamma-ray imager developed by H3D, Inc. Representatives from USI and H3D also participated in this exercise as collaborators and were an integral part of the team’s success.

Aerial radiological surveys have been conducted since the 1960s; what was new about this mission was that the team conducted aerial radiological surveys using an sUAS, commonly known as a drone, and a lightweight yet sturdy radiation detector that can be attached to a drone. The use of an unmanned aircraft enhances radiation detection capabilities because an unmanned aircraft can fly much lower and slower than a manned aircraft, enabling us to collect more detailed radiation measurements and geographical information. An sUAS can also maneuver into an area that would be unthinkable for a manned aircraft to access and collect data.

The H3D Apollo gamma imager was attached to the USI hexacopter and flown over the Sedan and Baneberry craters. (The Sedan test was conducted on July 6, 1962, and the Baneberry test took place on December 18, 1970.) The Apollo gamma imager weighs about 10 pounds, and it fits into a volume of 18 by 3 by 4 inches. The hexacopter is about the size of a card table, and the gross weight is about 50 pounds with the payload and fuel. At sea level it can fly for up to 2 hours at a time, but at the altitude of the NNSS the time is limited to approximately 30 to 40 minutes. It flew over a distance of a few kilometers to complete the surveys. Data collected during the surveys demonstrated that greater sensitivity and geographical resolution can be achieved with UAS technology. The project team located a gamma hot spot that no previous radiological survey done in the area with manned aircraft had identified.

The H3D Apollo gamma imager mounted to the USI hexacopter.

The team recently (March 2020) revisited the Sedan and Baneberry craters to obtain more measurements. During this visit, the team also traveled to the Palanquin crater (the Palanquin test took place on April 14, 1965) to collect additional survey and imaging data.

These flights successfully demonstrated how UAS technology can be leveraged in support of our national security missions, particularly in the area of emergency response and consequence management. An sUAS can be used in conjunction with manned aircraft for providing a rapid survey of radiation and contamination following a radiological emergency. The team is planning more field work to further explore the ability of an sUAS to fly into and assess difficult areas such as tunnels and other GPS-denied environments during national emergency situations. The team is moving closer to achieving their goal of developing hardware, methods, and expertise to provide critical information that helps protect emergency responders and the public in the event of a radiological emergency.

Watch the small UAS in action in this YouTube video.

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Falcon: A Portable Dense Plasma Focus Neutron Generator for Active Interrogation Applications

NNSS senior engineer Brady Gall and his team recently completed a three-year project to design, build, and test the Falcon Plasma Focus, a compact yet potent dense plasma focus (DPF) neutron generator for mobile active interrogation applications. The project, funded by the Site-Directed Research and Development (SDRD) program, not only represents cutting-edge science leading the frontier in pulsed power and plasma science, but also strengthens our nation’s ability to protect against the threat of nuclear terrorism by providing a safe, cost-effective, portable solution for detecting and defeating a smuggled nuclear threat.

Active interrogation involves directing nuclear radiation into a closed container and measuring secondary radiations to gain information about the contents of the container. DPF systems create short, high-intensity neutron pulses, making them capable of detecting and locating special nuclear material hidden in cargo containers and vehicles. Unlike other large scale, stationary DPF systems at NNSS, the Falcon is compact and portable, weighing only about 50 pounds; it can be readily transported to border crossings, seaports, and other places where it is needed. By comparison, the megajoule-class DPF system located at NNSS North Las Vegas Facility weights approximately 25,000 pounds and occupies 650 square feet; the system is simply not practical to deploy in the field. The Falcon’s small size, however, does not compromise its performance. The Falcon produces about 1 × 108 neutrons per pulse using deuterium fuel with a repetition rate up to 2 Hz, resulting in up to 2 × 108 neutrons per second, which is more than enough for any portable active interrogation mission.

Gall and his team spent the first two years designing a new plasma source and pulsed power driver, researching and testing new lightweight hardware, and energizing the system for neutron production. The final year of the project culminated in an experimental series to measure active fission products from nuclear materials using signal from the Falcon in a multi-lab collaboration with teams from NNSS and NNSA laboratories. These experiments successfully demonstrated that the portable DPF system can be used for active interrogation of clandestine special nuclear material. The significance and innovation of this project was recognized when the Falcon was selected as an R&D100 Award finalist for 2019.

Read a summary of this project in the SDRD FY 2019 Annual Report.

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Marylesa Howard, 2019 PECASE Recipient

Marylesa Howard PECASE

Marylesa Howard, an NNSS scientist and mathematician, was one of the recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) in 2019. The names of the recipients were announced by President Donald J. Trump on July 2, and the award ceremony was held at the White House on July 25. Established in 1996, the PECASE is a prestigious award that acknowledges contributions young scientists and engineers have made in the advancement of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education as demonstrated by scientific leadership, public education, and community outreach. It is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government to scientists and engineers in the early stages of their careers.

“I see this as being much bigger than me,” Howard said. “This is also about the NNSS being recognized for the powerful research enabled here. I came to the NNSS for a job, but what I’ve found here is much more than a job. It is a mission I’m proud to serve, groundbreaking research to which I can contribute and a sense of belonging among the people with whom I work. This is an absolute honor, one of which I would have never dreamed.”

Howard joined NNSS immediately after earning her PhD in mathematics from the University of Montana in 2013. Since then she has established herself as an influential leader among scientists in Nevada, at our nation’s national laboratories, and at universities across the country. She is a highly productive researcher, a champion for women in science, and an enthusiastic partner in scientific and educational outreach. She is regularly invited to speak at universities and professional conferences.

Among her recent accomplishments was her role in leading a team of scientists in developing a new approach to image segmentation, where an automated method quantitatively determines which parts of an image correspond to different objects in a street scene, different materials in an x-ray image, or different components of an item on an assembly line. She invented the first statistical method that allows a user to characterize parts of an image, but then automatically characterizes the rest of the image, even with the ability to correct any mistakes made by the user. Her invention has been incorporated into a software tool that has been copyrighted and licensed to Sandia National Laboratories, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and many universities.

“Marylesa’s technical contributions are vital to the security of our country,” said Mark Martinez, president of Mission Support and Test Services, the management and operating contractor for the NNSS. “Her work is integral to our mission, and I’m very proud to have her as part of the NNSS team.”

You can read more about her and her work in the NNSS press release.

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