Advanced commercially available technologies—such as additive manufacturing (3-D printing), small-scale chemical reactors for pharmaceuticals, and CRISPR gene-manipulation tools—have opened wide access to scientific exploration and discovery. In the hands of terrorists and rogue nation states, however, these capabilities could be misused to concoct chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosive (CBRNE) weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in small quantities and in form factors that are hard to detect.
To meet this challenge DARPA last month announced its SIGMA+ program, an expansion of the existing SIGMA program, which detects radiological and nuclear materials. SIGMA+ seeks to develop new sensors and networks that alert authorities to chemical, biological, and explosives threats as well.
“The goal of SIGMA+ is to develop and demonstrate a real-time, persistent CBRNE early detection system by leveraging advances in sensing, data fusion, analytics, and social and behavioral modeling to address a spectrum of threats,” said Vincent Tang, SIGMA+ program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office (DSO). “To achieve this, we’ve pulled together a team of DARPA program managers who bring expertise in chemistry, biology, data analytics, and social science to address the broad and complex CBRNE space.”
The program calls for the development of highly sensitive detectors and advanced intelligence analytics to detect minute traces of various substances related to WMD threats. SIGMA+ will use a common network infrastructure and mobile sensing strategy, a concept that was proven effective in the SIGMA program. The SIGMA+ CBRNE detection network would be scalable to cover a major metropolitan city and its surrounding region.
To uncover chemical and explosives threats, SIGMA+ seeks unprecedented long-range detection of hundreds of chemicals at trace levels to help authorities identify bomb-making safe houses in large urban areas, for example. Successfully developing scalable, long-range chemical sensors would help enable interdiction of improvised chemical and explosive threats or their constituent materials before an attack occurs.