STEERING CLEAR OF CONTAMINATION Two CBRN technicians secure and prepare to decontaminate the unmanned aerial vehicle after it investigates a potentially hazardous cloud. The unmanned ground vehicle in the background can also drive into contaminated environments, keeping Soldiers safe.
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STEERING CLEAR OF CONTAMINATION: Two CBRN technicians secure and prepare to decontaminate the unmanned aerial vehicle after it investigates a potentially hazardous cloud. The unmanned ground vehicle in the background can also drive into contaminated environments, keeping Soldiers safe.




New CBRN technologies keep Soldiers out of harm’s way in the field.


by Adam Lowe


As threats evolve, so must defensive capabilities. Older threats, such as gas attacks—not encountered by American warfighters on the battlespace since World War I—can be delivered by enemies in new and unique ways against the joint force. As the hazardous agents and the means of deploying them grow more complex, so, too, does the U.S. Army’s methods of identifying and defeating them. Recently, a team of acquisition professionals from across the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defense community demonstrated the latest capability set for the Stryker Nuclear Biological Chemical Reconnaissance Vehicle’s (NBCRV) Sensor Suite Upgrade (SSU).

On a cloudy day at the Aberdeen Proving Ground – Edgewood’s demonstration site in Maryland, the reconnaissance and platform integration team from the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense (JPEO-CBRND) showed senior leaders, government officials and Soldiers what is possible when new technology is used in new ways: keeping warfighters away from dangerous environments. By using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), CBRN sensors and manned and unmanned teaming, these components working together can allow warfighters and commanders to gain situational awareness of the battlespace and decide to maneuver around it or through it to accomplish the mission.

READY FOR TAKEOFF: An unmanned aerial vehicle sits in the back of the NBCRV, ready to take off and fly into a potentially hazardous cloud. (Photos courtesy of JPEO-CBRND)


Historically, warfighters responding to hazardous CBRN conditions would be required to either walk directly up to a potential hazard and then collect a sample by hand or drive their NBCRV over it to collect a sample from the back of the vehicle. Because both methods required being dangerously close to a hazardous area, they resulted in a lot of time and effort spent decontaminating Soldiers, vehicles, and any equipment used, and conducting reconnaissance.

“We are fundamentally increasing the [U.S. Army’s] Chemical Corps’ ability to do this detection capability off-platform, standoff, without having a Soldier enter harm’s way. That is a significant improvement,” said Lt. Col. Alan Stephens, joint product manager for reconnaissance and platform integration. This refers to the distance between the operator and the sensor; as opposed to the Soldier holding the detector, it’s “standing” at a different location farther away from the platform where the Soldiers might be.

The reconnaissance and platform integration team’s demonstrations focused on CBRN reconnaissance tasks of detecting and collecting biological agents; detecting environmental anomalies such as chemical or biological aerosols; detecting, identifying and locating radiological threats, and identifying on-site presumptive CBRN hazards. Key stakeholders and partners from the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Chemical and Biological Center (DEVCOM CBC), the U.S. Army 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives (CBRNE) Command, the U.S. Army CBRN School, Army Futures Command, U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command, the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense, and the Environmental Protection Agency attended the demonstration.

“This system really highlights where the JPEO is going,” said Nicole Kilgore, deputy joint program executive officer for CBRN defense at JPEO-CBRND. “When we talk about integration, it’s not just integration of the systems working together, it’s an integration of the partners and players across the board. What we see today truly demonstrates that partnership.”

INTO HARM’S WAY: A Man Transportable Robotic System Increment II unmanned ground vehicle is strapped with several different CBRN detectors and can be driven into contaminated environments without putting Soldiers in harm’s way. The claw can pick up objects and even open doors.

INTO HARM’S WAY: A Man Transportable Robotic System Increment II unmanned ground vehicle is strapped with several different CBRN detectors and can be driven into contaminated environments without putting Soldiers in harm’s way. The claw can pick up objects and even open doors.


For the radiological source mission demonstration, instead of having a warfighter don protective equipment, carry multiple sensors and try to get near a potential radiological threat (in this case, a simulated threat), operators from within an NBCRV used an Xbox controller to drive a Grizzly UGV attached with a mounted enhanced RADIAC (Radiation Detection, Indication and Computation) long-range imaging network applique (MERLIN-A) and a MERLIN imager (MERLIN-I) to get closer to the reported radiological threat. The MERLIN-A is used for standoff detection and provides directionality and relative source location, while the MERLIN-I is used to detect, identify, locate and image radiological hazards. The benefits of using a Grizzly UGV instead of a warfighter to get a sensor dangerously closer to a hazard benefits not only the warfighter’s health, but also the fidelity of information gathered, further increasing mission success.

“For the MERLIN-I, the speed at which the image builds is dependent on the size and strength of the source, so the closer you are to it and the stronger the source, the better the image and the faster it comes,” said Nicole Goetze, the lead systems engineer for the NBCRV.

Once the potential radiological source was detected, the surveyor created and submitted a report to the joint battle command platform, generating a geo-marker for the suspected source location. After capturing the area of highest concentration, the MERLIN-A sensor demonstrated how it notified the MERLIN-I of a more precise location where it should focus. The MERLIN-I scanned the area and captured an image of the “hottest spot,” and the surveyor created and submitted a follow-on report with confirmed radiological source information that was also disseminated to higher command via the joint battle command platform.

To drive home the point that these threats are not abstract, and to reinforce the need for the capability set, the planners showed footage from just two months earlier of a Ukrainian nuclear plant under attack by Russian forces, as well as video from recent U.N. Security Council meetings about biological weapons in between the day’s demonstrations.

TESTING THE LIMITS: Maj. Gen. Antonio V. Munera, the then-commanding general of the 20th CBRNE Command, points to the UAVs at the back of the NBCRV. His Soldiers will be among those using the upgraded capability.


The biological mission demonstration began with an aerosolized, simulated biological agent being sprayed as an anomaly cloud far from a compact standoff detection system. The system detects, tracks and maps aerosol clouds and provides waypoint location. After the system demonstrated that it detected and cloud-mapped the biological threat, the surveyor within the NBCRV launched the UAV, which was docked on the back of the NBCRV, and cued it via semiautonomous and waypoint navigation to go to the edge of the anomaly cloud.

As the UAV, often referred to as “the bird,” reached the front side of the cloud and descended to detection height, it let the cloud pass over it several times over a period of time to collect the sample, allowing the bio-sensing payload on the UAV to rapidly detect if a biological agent existed within the cloud, and notify a commander who could immediately make an informed decision, save lives and carry out the mission. The surveyor within the NBCRV then created and submitted a report with additional information, confirming the presence of an unknown (and simulated) bioagent.

The reconnaissance and platform integration team told attendees that if this were happening on a real battlespace, an improved mobile chemical agent detector would also scan for the presence of a chemical agent and alert the surveyor within the NBCRV. After the negative confirmation of a chemical threat, the hazard response team established a decontamination site. The UAV landed far enough away from other military assets and its launch location so as not to contaminate the area where Soldiers might process this potential biological sample at what was called the “H2” (processing site) or “dirty home.”

Making this demonstration feel even more like something out of “The Jetsons,” a man-transportable robotic system was substituted for a warfighter to execute reconnaissance of the decontamination site. Once the robotic system cleared the decontamination site, personnel from the dismounted reconnaissance suits kits and outfits (DR SKO) team prepared a decontamination line, and remained staged to execute UAV decontamination, bio sample collection and presumptive identification upon their team’s retrieval of the bird and sample. Donning “level A” chemical and biological protective gear, two men approached the UAV, retrieved the dry filter unit for identification of the bioagent, performed a quick decontamination of “the bird” and took it away to process the sample collected. “The birds [UAVs] are relatively cheap and are line replaceable units. If there is a live bioagent on it, commanders can determine [if they need to decontaminate] or replace [the unit],” said Stephens.

To further display the wide array of sensing capabilities that could be used to carry out the mission, handheld lateral flow immunoassays were available in the DR SKO for presumptive screening of biological hazards, along with the Joint Handheld Biological Identifier. The identifier uses polymerase chain reaction for higher fidelity identification of biological samples, while the lateral flow assays can screen for bioagents of concern.


Maj. Gen. Antonio V. Munera, then the commanding general of the 20th CBRNE Command, said the NBCRV SSU capability provides maneuver commanders with the ability to make decisions much quicker. “We enable their lethality,” said Munera, who commanded the U.S. military’s premier all hazards command from June 2020 until September 2022. “Launching these autonomous and semiautonomous systems will, at standoff distance, allow commanders to understand there’s something ‘bad’ out there early, giving commanders the freedom to maneuver and the opportunity to make proactive decisions. All while safeguarding the force by detecting hazards in the environment without standing in it.”

Several leaders who had witnessed the evolution of the capability set noted how far it had come since its inception. “I think it’s worth noting that it was only in 2019 that the chief of staff of the Army decided to accelerate the development of this prototype,” said Scott Kimmell, deputy commandant of the U.S. Army CBRN School. “With work beginning in 2019, we are only three years later. That’s pretty amazing, that progress that was made in three years to go from basically a sketch to seeing the NBCRV SSU perform. Not with all of its bells and whistles, but a lot of them. I’m not saying this to be less critical; we need to be as critical as possible because this is going in the hands of a Soldier. But it’s good to smell the rose once and go, ‘Wow, this is pretty impressive.’ ” Eric Moore, Ph.D., then the director at DEVCOM CBC, said of the capability set, “I think this is really impressive and I think we need to get it out to Project Convergence.”

This demonstration allowed key decision-makers to see the status of the program, ask questions and provide feedback afterward, and gave end users an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the capability set. Integrated within the demonstration were the DR SKO, CBRN sensors integration on robotics platforms and the screening obscuration module.

Once fielded, these innovative capabilities will help keep CBRN Soldiers safe, ultimately minimizing the need for them to enter potential CBRN threat environments.



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ADAM LOWE is the public affairs officer for the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense at Aberdeen Proving Ground – Edgewood, Maryland. He holds a B.S. in psychology and a B.A. in philosophy and religion from James Madison University and an M.S. in couple and family therapy from the University of Maryland, College Park.


Read the full article in the Spring 2023 issue of Army AL&T magazine. 
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