Full Throttle: How the IC Accelerated R&D at the Indianapolis 500
August 21, 2020
By Michael Kaplun, ODNI Office of Strategic Communications
For auto racing fans around the world, the Indianapolis 500 evokes images of cars whizzing around the historic track at speeds north of 230 miles per hour. This century-old event held annually at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is known as the “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
What’s not known by many is the Indianapolis 500 has served as an important testing ground for America’s Intelligence Community and national security apparatus.
In 2019, IARPA – the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity – partnered with local and regional law enforcement at the event to screen for traces of explosives. Using contactless infrared sensor technology, the testing involved scanning the surfaces of vehicles and personal electronics entering the grounds for chemical materials – materials that could be used to set off bombs.
While the COVID-19 pandemic will prevent IARPA from attending this year’s Indy 500 (scheduled Aug. 23), the important research and development has advanced the organization’s SILMARILS program (which stands for Standoff ILluminator for Measuring Absorbance and Reflectance Infrared Light Signatures).
“By doing field testing at an event like the Indy 500, we can access a range of samples that we could never hope to duplicate in the lab,” remarked Dr. Kristy DeWitt, who manages IARPA’s SILMARILS program. “We can also gauge the ability of the sensors to perform in real weather conditions and with a complex mixture of chemicals in the air resulting from fuel emissions from the race cars, outdoor cooking, and large crowds.”
Current approaches for detecting trace materials on surfaces from explosives, narcotics and other dangerous chemicals require physical collection and analysis (picture sniffing dogs and human screeners when you pass through the security gates at an airport).
These security measures, while effective, come with increased safety risks for the screeners and collection error. The goal of IARPA’s program is to improve these efforts with safer, faster, and more convenient contactless screening methods.
“IARPA uses an eye safe laser and special camera to take a picture of the surface in the infrared at a distance up to 90 feet away from the sample. By analyzing many different colors of infrared light, the sensor can determine the chemical composition of all of the elements in the picture – similar to how a grocery store scanner reads a barcode,” said DeWitt.
When developed, U.S. agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense, as well as local law enforcement, could use the technology to contribute to counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics missions.
Day-to-day examples could include contactless screening of people’s hands, packages, backpacks, luggage, portable electronics and car doors in heavily-trafficked locations. In fact, according to DeWitt, DHS has already awarded a contract to pick up one implementation of the SILMARILS sensor for cargo screening.
IARPA’s SILMARILS program will end January 2021, with additional mock field testing scheduled in October at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. At that point, the science of the project will be nearly complete, said DeWitt. Efforts will then turn to improving the engineering of the technology so it can be ready to help enhance America’s national security.
To learn more about IARPA’s SILMARILS program, visit here.
The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity tested new technology under the SILMARILS program at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2019.