Radar used by meteorologists could detect chemical release

April 25, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Radar used by television meteorologists and the National Weather Service could play a critical role in detecting the airborne release of lethal chemicals in a terrorist attack, say researchers at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

In tests last week using a crop-duster over the Gulf of Mexico, the Army found four types of radar systems that can detect simulated chemical and biological agents released into the air, said Robert Lyons, a civilian team leader in the Army's Office of the Project Manager for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defense Systems. The office is based at the proving ground.

The results were promising, Lyons said yesterday. "We feel pretty confident that there are radar available in this country that can do this mission," he said.

The discovery is important because radar systems blanket the country. The National Weather Service has 153 Doppler radar sites, each with a range of 25 miles. If these and other systems could be equipped to detect lethal agents accurately, the country would gain an extensive early-warning system, researchers said.

Lyons said the radar computers would need only a software upgrade. Evaluation of the data from last week's tests is expected to take four months, he said. After that, researchers can design the software needed to refine the radar's tracking ability.

The goal is to have a basic chemical-biological detection system in place around the country within 18 to 24 months, Lyons said, with upgrades to follow over several years.

The C-Band system, a type of radar commonly used by TV weather forecasters, showed the best preliminary results, he said. "We were really pleased with the performance of this system. You could see the plane fly in and the cloud being released at 19 miles away," he said.

Lyons said the clouds emerged on the radar as Level 3 weather events, or severe thunderstorms. But the simulated-agent clouds appeared and disappeared quickly on the radar - a phenomenon easily distinguished from storms, he said.

The experiment also tested the effectiveness of the four radar systems for drug interdiction and ground surveillance.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency participated in the tests off the Florida Keys, flying the crop-duster and providing the simulants, Lyons said. Ethanol, diluted polyethylene glycol (found in eye drops and cosmetics), powdered egg whites, clay dust and irradiated vegetable spores were used.

Who will monitor the data and other operational matters have not been decided, said Col. Christopher J. Parker, project manager.

"A lot of things have to be worked out yet," he said. "We're very confident the technical side is there now."

The Office of the Project Manager for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defense Systems also develops protection devices for soldiers such as gas masks, agent-detection monitors and pressurized tents that medical units can use for surgery on agent-contaminated battlefields.

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