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Meet a Machine: AMS is NNSA’s eye in the sky

The Aerial Measuring System (AMS) provides a sophisticated radiation detection system that supports NNSA’s mission to prepare for, respond to, and mitigate nuclear and radiological accidents and incidents globally. AMS provides real-time measurements of ground contamination. By quickly surveying very large areas that could not easily be accomplished otherwise, AMS aircraft (helicopters and fixed-wing) support NNSA’s efforts to respond to radiological emergencies. The system’s capacity to detect radiation is one of the first tools used to inform important decisions about public protection, and helps decide where to deploy NNSA, state, local, and other Federal agency’s ground monitoring and response teams. In addition, AMS supports Department of Energy Field Offices, interagency training exercises, and other Federal, State, and local agencies in support of their missions.

Radiation is all around us. Commonly occurring materials, including building materials like brick, granite, and concrete, are very slightly radioactive. Even bananas are radioactive! AMS can tell the difference between naturally occurring and man-made radiation signatures from the air, and can even distinguish golf courses by the tiny radiation signature from fertilizer.

Aerial Measuring System helicopter stationed at the Remote Sensing Laboratory in Las Vegas, NV.

By the Numbers:

  • Five aircraft with on call availability 24/7 to respond in case of a radiological emergency
  • Helicopters typically fly between 100 and 500 feet above ground, and fixed-wing aircraft between 1000 and 3000 feet, in predetermined flight patterns AMS flies with specialized radiation-sensing systems. The systems installed on the helicopter are four feet long and weigh more than 800 pounds
  • Every second, on-board computers analyze large amounts of gamma ray radiation data, in conjunction with GPS and radar altimeter data, allowing AMS scientists to perform near real-time data analysis
  • AMS flew for more than 500 hours in response to the Fukushima disaster. Together with the Government of Japan, AMS mapped radiation levels over 3,000 square miles surrounding the power plant.

The Aerial Measuring System aircraft taxiing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.