This isn’t your dad’s fishing vest.
A tactical yet subtle vest designed at Kansas State University in conjunction with a Manhattan startup and a Virginia-based defense contractor will help law enforcement and military agencies search for nuclear material without being noticed. The research team behind the vest won a R&D 100 Award from R&D Magazine late in 2017 for being a top new technology of the year. The award highlights novel technology brought from concept through design and research to full commercialization.
“The idea was pretty simple — we wanted people who might be looking for nuclear material to not look like that’s what they were doing,” said Douglas McGregor, professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering.
McGregor led a multidisciplinary team of mostly graduate students for about three years as they developed and tested efficient but small radiation detectors. Neutron detectors, once bulky boxes, are now so small they resemble a smartphone and can be operated with relatively little power, he said. The result was a black no-frills multi-pocket vest that looks like a fisherman’s jacket. Instead of fishing hooks, dozens of pockets hold 16 modules, each with 24 sensors in various places around the body.
Those sensors allow the wearer to easily walk around a crowded event space, a car at the border and crates in a shipping yard without being conspicuous. An app installed on an Android phone communicates with the sensors and provides real-time readings of radiation in the environment.
Work to downsize neutron detectors from essentially a large box carried in hand began for McGregor about 15 years ago. At the time, he said, he saw a need for smaller, easier to carry devices for those working in power plants. At about the same time the supply of Helium-3, commonly used at the time in neutron detectors, dwindled, so McGregor and other scientist began researching alternative methods to detect high radiation. Over the decades, sensors have become about 69 percent efficient, he said, a sharp increase from the about 5 percent effectiveness expected in sensors when he began his research.
Basically, a radiation sensor relies on an element sensitive to particles, like neutrons. The devices signal each time they come in contact with the particles, allowing the user to monitor for higher-than-normal levels.
The most obvious application of the vest is in military and law enforcement operations, but McGregor said the vest would be useful for Department of Energy personnel inspecting nuclear power plants. Like security agencies searching for dirty bombs, civilian nuclear inspectors also carry bulky equipment and could benefit from smaller devices.
Manhattan-based Radiation Detection Technologies Inc. brought the vest to the commercial market last year, and founder and CEO Steven Bellinger said the product has already seen interest from the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Military and various law enforcement agencies. He couldn’t provide details of pending contracts, he said.
“You can wear this under your clothes and basically no one would know you’re looking for a dirty bomb or high levels of radiation,” he said. “There’s a compact option now, but it’s in a backpack, which is still pretty obvious.”
Alvion Science and Technology, a Tysons Corner, Va., technology and solutions company, was the primary private contractor involved in the project, Bellinger said. It was funded through the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
RDT spun out of K-State in 2011 and has supplied a number of radiation sensors and related devices to the Department of Defense and Department of Energy. The company is also expanding into products for X-ray machines in the healthcare industry, Bellinger said.
He attributed the company’s growth to K-State and the University of Missiouri-Kansas City.
“Being able to work near K-State and UMKC not only allows us to collaborate, but we’re also right there when things are being developed saying, ‘Wow, yeah, that’ll work,’ ” he said. “It’s symbiotic relationship that speeds (development) up.”
The group recruited Emily Pascoe, a doctoral student in apparel and textiles, who had previously done work for Calvin Klein, Izod and other brands through a third-party vendor. The project was a bit of a departure from her normal work.
“At first I was really unsure, but they were immediately confident in me and the idea, so that made me confident,” Pascoe said on a phone call from Antigua, Guatemala, where she’s studying traditional garments worn by Mayan women. “They basically gave me this massive wish list, like it needed to be ballistics and fire proof but also light and breathable. But they wanted a vest. That’s a basic shape, probably one of the simplest shapes possible.”
She first designed a padded vest meant to be more discrete, but found it didn’t have the tactical feel law enforcement agencies are used to. She turned to active outdoor vests for inspiration and settled on densely weaved nylon for durability.
The challenge was placing the more than a dozen devices in pockets around the vest to be both clandestine and comfortable.
“My major role was understanding the human body and knowing how to place things around the body to be comfortable,” she said. “Basically, this is like wearing a whole lot of cellphones all over you.”
Pascoe also designed the vest to be reversible with the ability to be zipped into an overcoat.
Getting the vest to a commercial market maybe just as rewarding as the R&D 100 Award, McGregor said. Many concepts remain as blueprints, he said.
“That’s something I pride my lab and our engineers on,” he said. “We try to look at a problem that has real practical applications and find a solution.”
Contact reporter Luke Ranker at (785) 295-1270 or @lrankerNEWS on Twitter. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/lukeranker.