U.S. agencies are testing a system designed to fly on unmanned aerial vehicles and sniff the air after a nuclear detonation, to discover who made the bomb.
The system, called Harvester, includes two "sampling pods" to collect debris from the air, as well as a third pod that detects gamma radiation to guide the drone pilots to the heart of a nuclear blast.
Harvesters are expected to show up in the U.S. Air Force's experimental fleet by 2014, according to a statement from Sandia National Laboratories, which developed the Harvester. "There's a high likelihood the Air Force will make Harvester operational in 2014 to augment its current manned aircraft collection capability," Joe Sanders, Sandia's lead for the Harvester project, said in the statement.
Researchers tested Harvesters at the Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota in September 2012. During the test, the pods flew on MQ-9 Reaper drones donated by the Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection. The pods are about the size of a snowmobile and are designed to fit in a variety of types of aircraft, Sandia says.
The September tests didn't include any nuclear releases. Instead, Harvesters flying on Reaper drones successfully collected radioactive chemicals that occur naturally in the air, including radioisotopes of lead and bismuth, which are decay products of naturally occurring radon, and beryllium-7, a product of carbon-14 that's been broken up by cosmic rays.
Harvester pods analyze what they capture in real time, while they're flying. They also collect samples in filters that researchers can examine more carefully after the pods have landed.
Sandia researchers are now working on another sampling pod, named the Whole Air Sampling Pod, designed to take large samples of air and analyze them for gases instead of particles.