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A drone used to detect radiation hovers near the tennis courts at the intermural fields on West Campus at University Park. Image by Jamie Oberdick

By Jamie Oberdick

It was an unusual scene on an overcast day in July 2022 at the University Park West Campus intramural fields. Near quiet tennis courts, a group of around 100 first-year college students, high school students, graduate students from several universities, faculty and administrators, and military visitors gathered around several display tables, including one dishing out Berkey Creamery ice cream. Nearby, a somewhat ominous, mysterious large black drone hovered with a distinct high-pitched buzz. 

Fortunately, the drone was part of the show, a demonstration of drones that are used to detect gamma radiation as part of the 2022 Interaction of Ionizing Radiation with Matter University Alliance (IIRM-URA) Annual Technical Review. The event featured presentations, a student poster competition, tours of the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor and the Millennium Science Complex, and the drone demonstration.  

Such drones would become very important in the event of some form of nuclear attack. Most people do not want to think about a nuclear device going off in an American city, because it meets the very definition of “unthinkable.” But the IIRM-URA, led by Penn State, focuses on just that.  

The IIRM-URA was formed to tackle some challenging science with a worthy goal: improve survivability and response in the case of a nuclear attack. The IIRM-URA consists of 15 universities, four national laboratories, and two industrial companies. Penn State is the lead research organization, and the IIRM-URA is funded by the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). Douglas Wolfe, professor of materials science and engineering, professor of engineering science and mechanics, professor of nuclear engineering, professor of additive manufacturing and design, and the head of the Metals, Ceramics and Coatings Processing Department of the Applied Research Laboratory (ARL) leads the Penn State efforts.  

“The IIRM-URA researches how radiation and materials interact, with a goal of developing and integrating technology that will save lives and enable a better response to a nuclear attack,” Wolfe said.  “We focus around three research areas, and also are working to create a diverse student pipeline to create a strong workforce that will develop and implement vital national security solutions.” 

The three cross-cutting research areas include materials, devices and integration, and survivability and response.  

In the first research area, researchers work to develop new materials for devices that can survive a nuclear attack by examining how ionizing radiation from a nuclear device interacts with various materials. This involves disciplines such as materials physics and chemistry, material genomics for rapid material development, and machine learning.  

“We are looking at using new materials to help develop devices that can meet several metrics, such as energy resolution, response time, cost, volume, manufacturability, and ruggedness,” Wolfe said.  

This builds into the second research area, devices and integration, which includes engineering solutions to the major challenges facing the construction of integrated devices across multiple detection systems, with a specific focus on photodetectors, detector electronics, and signal processing. These devices can allow the detection of dirty bombs to enable law enforcement or military groups to react and neutralize the threat.  

For the third research area, survivability and response, IIRM-URA researchers are studying how radiation affects devices to enable the development of electronics and detection systems that can survive a radioactive threat. This also includes developing materials that can remove or prevent contamination of warfighters and defense equipment and the ability to detect radioactive contamination on surfaces and in the air at long range.  

“We want to create low-cost, high-efficiency detectors that can operate on-site at room temperature, such as the drone that was demonstrated at our event last July,” Wolfe said. “In addition, these electronics and systems would be able to withstand any radiation damage. In fact, we are also working to design electronics for banking and satellite systems that can withstand a nuclear blast and still enable us to communicate with each other.” 

At Penn State, this research is a collaborative effort among multiple entities, including the College of Engineering, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, ARL, the Radiation Science and Engineering Center and the Materials Research Institute. Along with Wolfe, some active faculty members are Saptarshi Das, associate professor of engineering science and mechanics at Penn State; Marek Flaska, associate professor of nuclear engineering; and Aman Haque, professor of mechanical engineering and engineering science and mechanics. According to Wolfe, this enables an interdisciplinary aspect to Penn State’s research contribution.  

group of diverse people posing with a drone
Wolfe, left, second row, and Lora Weiss, senior vice president of research, to the right of Wolfe, pose with students and a drone at the 2022 IIRM-URA Technical Review drone demonstration 

“Alliances like the IIRM-URA are able to accelerate our understanding in a unified and collaborative research initiative with the general goal of advancing fundamental knowledge and promoting interdisciplinary research,” Wolfe said. “All of these different groups also drive several programs in the alliance that are geared towards benefiting the next generation of researchers. For example, the IIRM-URA has developed and supported several workforce development and student pipeline programs.” 

The workforce development initiative, which was on display at the drone demonstration last July at the Technical Review, includes undergraduate and graduate students from Penn State who participate in IIRM-URA research. The alliance also works to build the radiation outreach. 

These programs include working with Penn State’s Student Opportunities in Applied Research (SOAR) Program, who was present for the drone demonstration in July. Formerly known as the Open Diversity Outreach Opportunities in Research, SOAR is a summer internship and mentoring program for highly qualified undergraduate students in STEM to support them in developing technical skills, communication skills and career readiness. The program also serves as a pipeline to bring new talent into ARL. 

Other workforce development and student pipeline outreach activities include the Young Investigator Award Program, the UK Summer School for Radiation Detection and Measurement, Nuclear Science and Engineering Research Center (NSERC) internship, the Sea, Air, and Land (SeAL) Challenge and various other student-focused challenges, such as the IIRM Virtual Drone Competitions.  

"We are also collaborating with the United States Military Academy at West Point and the Air Force Institute of Technology to engage students and faculty in DTRA-relevant research and education,” Wolfe said.  

The SeAL Challenge will launch in April and May of 2023. The event features teams of middle and high school student teams in nine regions, six covering Pennsylvania and one each in New York City, Virginia and Detroit. The teams will work together to develop robotic devices capable of navigating various environments. The students have 12-16 weeks to design and build the robots, which can either be a submersible drone to navigate the underwater challenge course, an airborne drone to fly the air challenge course, or a ground drone to traverse the land challenge course. DTRA is the lead sponsor of the event. 

Wolfe notes that the workforce development activities such as SeAL will help ensure that there will be a solid workforce to defend the nation from nuclear threats for generations to come.   

“Through the student pipeline development effort, we strive to foster the development of our nation’s next-generation workforce, which will recognize and address potential emerging threats and associated risks,” Wolfe said. “The successful transformative research conducted within the IIRM-URA will assist DTRA in continuing to enable safe and reliable nuclear deterrents, counter nuclear proliferation, and provide innovative solutions and strategies to combat and protect against WMD threats.” 

The IIRM-URA will hold three student drone competitions this coming year. The first will be held in the spring from March 31 to April 5, where participants will fly a drone in a simulation to identify radiation sources in an abandoned building complex. Another drone demonstration is planned for the 2023 IIRM-URA Annual Review, which will be held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this summer. And finally, IIRM-URA is planning a virtual drone competition at some point in fall 2023, where participants will fly a drone in a simulation to identify a safe path for first responders through a nuclear disaster scene.  

Along with Penn State, other members of the IIRM-URA include the Air Force Institute of Technology, Brigham Young University, Fisk University, Georgia Institute of Technology, H3D Inc., Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Naval Research Laboratory, Northwestern University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Radiation Monitoring Devices Inc., Sandia National Laboratory, United States Military Academy at West Point, University of California at Berkeley, University of Florida, University of Michigan, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Surrey, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and Vanderbilt University. 

view from above of students at the IIRM-URA Technical Review's poster session.
Attendees at the 2022 IIRM-URA Technical Review poster session.