Berkeley Lab

Low-flying Helicopter near Lab This Week

news helicopterThe Applied Nuclear Physics Program in the Nuclear Science Division is involved in a research program to develop and advance important technologies and capabilities for aerial measurement of gamma-radiation.

The United States has maintained an aerial radiological detection capability since the early 1950’s. The nation’s premier capability is called the Aerial Measuring System (AMS) and is operated by the Remote Sensing Laboratory for the National Nuclear Security Administration (Department of Energy). These are the same experts that the United States Government deployed to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant incident in support of the Japanese government in 2011. In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security decided to review current aerial radiological detection capabilities and, using lessons learned from Fukushima as well as from many years of operations, begin a research program designed to develop an improved aerial capability. The Airborne Radiological Enhanced-sensor System (ARES) program is this effort. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) is a key player –  Prof. Kai Vetter, Dr. Brian Quiter and their LBNL team are world experts in radiation detection and provide the government with the highest level of scientific and technical expertise. We are also conducting this effort in partnership with the NNSA AMS team. The helicopter that will be flying over the Bay Area is a Department of Energy Bell 412 helicopter, operated and flown by the Remote Sensing Laboratory.

Also driven by the expertise of LBNL’s Applied Nuclear Physics program  and their associates at University of California, Berkeley, background measurements in a wide range of environments are critical to establish baselines and to improve detection capabilities of nuclear materials. Associated with that, it is important to realize that natural background and associated natural temporal and spatial variations exist and limit the sensitivity and effectiveness in detecting nuclear or radiological materials.

More information about our activities on measuring radiation in a large range of environmental and food samples can be found under This includes in a world-wide unique, high-resolution, and real-time air monitoring station installed on UCB campus.

NNSA Press Release

Answers to questions the public may have

Is there a reason they are flying over Bay Area as opposed to somewhere else?
The system has already been flown over Las Vegas, NV, Baltimore MD and Washington, DC. These cities were chosen because of their different geological features and their proximity to the AMS home bases. The AMS maintains aerial capabilities (helicopter systems) at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, NV and at Joint Base Andrews near to Washington DC.
The Bay Area was specifically chosen to take advantage of its unique geological features (mountains, shoreline, city and bays) as well as to utilize prior measurement efforts conducted with research systems operated by the University of California, Berkeley and LBNL. These prior measurements allow us to compare results from the aerial system to those taken on the ground.

Are the measurements specifically for naturally occurring radiation in the environment?
Yes, these measurements are focused on naturally-occurring radiation in the environment. We will not be placing radioactive sources out in public.

What will you/DOE/NNSA do with the collected data? What is the benefit?
The data collected is maintained by LBNL. It will be analyzed using state-of-the-art algorithms under development for the ARES program and the results with be compared by the LBNL team for the DNDO. This data set lets us determine the effectiveness of the new detection technologies being employed on the ARES.
The earlier Bay Area flights ( were taken to provide a baseline measurement. This baseline allows us to compare directly the capabilities of the existing AMS system to our new prototype.

How do the flyovers happen? Meaning, do they need to fly over multiple times at low altitude? What should we expect?
The helicopter will be flying specific patterns determined prior to their flights. While the helicopter will not be flying the same pattern over and over again, the closeness of the lines (250  – 500 ft) somethings leads people to believe that we’re flying repeatedly over the same spot. We are not. The flight areas are selected by the LBNL and RSL experts and designed to emphasize specific ground features. For example, flying over an urban setting next to a mountain allows us to determine how significant terrain features effects our ability to determine the naturally-occurring radiation background.

Are the flyovers already scheduled or will we (and the FAA?) receive advance notice?
Our aviation team from the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Remote Sensing Laboratory will coordinate their activities and flight schedules with the FAA and other responsible government agencies.

Do you have an estimate for the total flyover time over Berkeley?
Our current plan is to conduct 1 – 2 flights (2 – 5 hours total) over the Berkeley area.

Will the data or resulting analysis be published at some point?
Yes, the data and resulting analysis will be published. The scientific groups, LBNL and RSL, and the performers, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Leidos Corp., are encouraged to publish their individual results in peer-reviewed scientific journals. They will also present results at scientific conferences.

After data analysis is complete, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office will generate a report covering the entire ARES advanced technology demonstration. We are expecting it to be completed in the late spring or early summer of 2016.  Because of the information contained in these reports, they are labeled For Official Use Only.