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Block MEMS wins $3.5M DARPA laser detection contract

01 Aug 2019

Objective of SIGMA+ is to protect cities against diverse chemical threats, expanding on earlier SIGMA’s nuclear focus.

Block MEMS, a developer of quantum cascade laser (QCL)-based infrared detection systems, has been awarded a $3.5M contract from the US Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA), as part of its SIGMA+ Program.

The goal of the program is to develop a real-time, early detection system for the full spectrum of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRNE) weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threats at the city-to-region scale.

The SIGMA+ program is built on DARPA’s previous SIGMA program, which began in 2014 as an effort to develop scalable detection capabilities to counter the threat of radiological and nuclear WMDs. SIGMA developed thousands of high-capability, low-cost detectors and networked them to demonstrate large-scale, continuously-streaming physical sensor networks.

Collaborative effort

The SIGMA+ work will be done under a collaborative effort, led by SRI International, an independent, nonprofit research center based in Menlo Park, Ca., called Localization and Characterization of Chemical Anomalies in Urban Settings (LOCCUS). LOCCUS will combine SRI’s point sensing technology with Block’s standoff sensing technology to deliver an adaptive, high-sensitivity, ruggedized detection capability that exceeds chemical sensing capabilities today.

Dr. Anish Goyal, Block’s VP of Technology and principal investigator of the contract, commented, “This SIGMA+ contract extends Block’s standoff, chemical detection capabilities to the real-time, monitoring and mapping of urban environments. Block’s QCL technology and advanced algorithms are ideally suited for this application and we look forward to the development and, ultimately, deployment of such systems by operational partners.”

Al Weggeman, Block’s President, added. “This is a great opportunity to partner with DARPA and SRI in the creation of technologies that will promote global safety and security.”


Under this contract, Block MEMS will leverage its eye-safe laser capability to generate chemical detection maps via standoff sensing in a complex three-dimensional urban topography.

Block MEMS and its affiliate Block Engineering are leading suppliers of laser based chemical solids and gas detection systems for the Safety, Security, and Environmental markets. For more than 50 years, Block has developed and manufactured mid-infrared chemical solid and gas detection instruments using FTIR and Quantum Cascade Laser technology.

Block solutions are used by the aviation and transportation industries, regulatory and customs authorities, government agencies and military, commercial facilities and venues, and other secure facilities. Applications include the screening of people, vehicles, baggage, cargo and packages for explosives, drugs, and chemical agents and gases.

Video explainer

The following DARPA TV video explains the how the SIGMA+ program aims to expand the SIGMA program’s capability to detect illicit radioactive and nuclear materials with the development of new sensors and networks that would alert authorities to chemical, biological, and explosives threats as well.

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