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Nature Assists in Cargo Inspection

Original article from San Diego Business Journal, June 22, 2015, by Brad Graves

TECH: Co.’s Method Can Safely Detect Contraband
Decision Sciences International Corp. intends to be a player in a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek. It is applying research from Los Alamos National Laboratory to engineer a machine that sees inside trucks and shipping containers — all without X-rays or similar hazardous technology. Decision Sciences investors hope to sell their machines to government authorities, who could use them to inspect cargo at borders, ports or other checkpoints. The business has a prototype system running in Poway; a company representative estimated that Decision Sciences spent $3 million to $4 million building the first article. Another system is running in Freeport, Bahamas. The company’s MMPDS technology can detect radioactive material, even if smugglers are trying to hide it inside a box made of lead. The device can also sniff out and identify the signatures of specific materials such as tobacco or alcohol that importers might be trying to avoid taxes on. (MMPDS stands for Multi-Mode Passive Detection System.)

Dr. Gene W. Ray - Decision Sciences International Corporation - CEO
Dr. Gene Ray

“The company has incredible potential,” said interim CEO Gene W. Ray , who San Diegans may know best as the former CEO of Titan Corp. L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. (NYSE: LLL) bought Titan in 2005. “This will be a very major corporation,” said Ray, who has a stake in the company but declined to say how much. “It could be a multibillion-dollar corporation. That’s why all of us are involved.” Decision Sciences is currently between CEOs. Ray, a board member, stepped in to lead the company during the executive search. The former Titan chief recalled vowing he would never be a CEO again, but said he’s gone back on his word.

CEO: Gene Ray (interim)
Revenue: Undisclosed
No. of local employees: More than 50
Investors: Undisclosed
Headquarters: Middleburg, Va. Most employees are in Poway, California
Year founded: 2003
Company description: Producer of an innovative system that uses naturally occurring muons to identify cargo in a closed container

Follow That Muon
Decision Science’s core technology detects muons. Muons are high-energy, subatomic particles produced by the cosmic rays that rain down from space. Ten thousand muons pass through every square meter of the Earth every minute. Unlike radioactive material, muons aren’t harmful. People have coexisted with them since the dawn of humanity. The Decision Science scanner is big enough to drive an 18-wheel truck into. Above and below the parking space are multiple rows of aluminum pipe — thousands of pieces of pipe packed tightly together as if in some sort of pipe warehouse. These are drift tubes, and each is filled with gas. Muons raining down from the upper atmosphere pass through the gas and interact with it. Electronics hooked to the tubes record these interactions — and reveal how a particular muon’s trajectory might shift. That shift holds a clue to what sort of material the muon encountered in its journey between the top rank of tubes and the bottom rank of tubes. The most expensive part of the system is the aluminum for the tubes, said Michael Sossong, a former Los Alamos employee now working as Decision Sciences’ chief technology officer. Decision Sciences paid Los Alamos to commercialize the technology, Ray said. It has 26 patents for its machine and has applied for more than 90 patents. Decision Sciences is based in Virginia, but has only a small contingent in that office. Most of the heavy lifting is done in Poway, where Decision Sciences has more than 50 employees.

The Prototype
The company’s prototype scanner sits in a high-ceilinged bay at the back of the building; a truck trailer sits inside. Scattered around are loads that can be placed in the truck for testing: There are pallets of office paper and kitty litter. There is a box full of cheap cigarettes and another full of isopropyl alcohol (a stand-in for liquor). Passing a nondescript table, a visitor notices three howitzer shells at his elbow. “All kinds of interesting things lying around,” one company official observed. The real show begins, however, once you stand behind the yellow line with radiation warning signs. It’s then that a material handler brings a sample of depleted uranium out of a secure, fenced area. Beacons placed at the four corners of the hot zone begin to rotate, their unnerving red lights playing against the high bay’s concrete walls. The lights are to let bystanders know there is radioactive material present. They have nothing to do with the scanner, which has not yet detected the uranium. As the scanner works, a 3-D view of the truck shows up on an operator’s screen; as more time passes, the scanner gets a more accurate picture of what’s hidden inside. After a short interval, the screen shows something in the truck is 120 times stronger than the background radiation, and is emitting gamma rays. “It’s finding something that’s a little bit bigger than a baseball in a 20-foot cargo container in a minute,” Sossong said.

Detector -- 06-08-2015 -- Poway MMPDS Detector
A truck and its contents are scanned at Decision Sciences International Corp.’s research and development center in Poway.

The Lead Box Challenge
The handler then puts the radioactive material in a lead box. That doesn’t shield it, Sossong said. “He just made it a bigger target for us,” he said. The scanner can tell the moderately dense lead from the very dense uranium. “No other technology can look inside a lead box,” Sossong said. One benefit of the Decision Sciences scanner is that it is quick; it won’t slow down commerce, company executives said. Nor does it give false positives. One problem with radiation detectors is they produce false alarms with mildly radioactive material such as cat litter and bananas. By then, customs screeners feel they can ignore the warnings. Ideally, Decision Sciences executives said, the company’s technology could be employed to foil a terrorist attack. Decision Sciences is not the only San Diego County company to develop cargo inspection technology. Leidos, one of two companies that emerged from the original Science Applications International Corp., has a long history of making cargo inspection devices in Vista. The company’s VACIS technology uses gamma rays.

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