National Nuclear Security Administration

Sniffing out danger from above

May 12, 2016

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NNSA’s efforts to prevent, counter, and respond to the dangers of nuclear proliferation and terrorism are vital to U.S. national security. Terrorist attacks in the past year in Europe and the United States have highlighted the evolving and unpredictable nature of the threat. Science, technology, and engineering that support nuclear threat detection help give the nation the edge we need to remain ahead of adversaries.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers have been working on an innovative project to sharpen that edge. By making neutron-emitting devices small enough to be mobile and put on a small unmanned aircraft, or drone, researchers at the school’s Fusion Technology Lab “did something that has never been done before,” Jerry Kulcinski, the lab’s director, told The Journal Times this month.

The drone-mounted device is a “small fusion machine” that works by sending out radiation in the form of neutrons, NNSA’s Executive Director of Major Modernization Programs Col. John W. Weidner said. When the neutrons emitted by the device strike different materials, they produce identifiable signatures, he said. The drones could then be used, for example, to detect IEDs on a planned convoy route. 

Weidner holds degrees in nuclear engineering and medical physics from UW-Madison and works in NNSA’s Office of Defense Programs. He has a unique knowledge and perspective on the application of the innovative new device.

Learn more about NNSA’s planning and program activities to ensure U.S. national security and advance global nuclear security in our recently released annual reports. Read the full reporting on UW-Madison’s research from The Journal Times.