GAMMA RAY VISION
Boeing Co. is protesting the award of a $1.1 billion contract for weather satellites to Lockheed Martin Corp. Meanwhile, Science Applications International Corp.’s nearly $100 million sale of nonintrusive inspection systems to the Army is proceeding apace.
After Lockheed Martin beat Boeing and Northrop Grumman Corp. on the award for next-generation weather satellites, Boeing filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office. A Boeing spokesperson said the company “felt like we had a superior product under the disclosed evaluation criteria.” The NASA/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration contract calls for Lockheed Martin to build two Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series, with the first launch set for 2015. The new craft will carry instruments and sensors that “will provide about 50 times more data to hurricane forecasters” than is available today, said Mary Kicza, a NOAA spokeswoman. The award has options for two additional spacecraft.
Under a $97.9 million contract, the Army will buy 50 of SAIC’s mobile Vehicle and Cargo Inspection Systems (VACIS), and SAIC will provide training, maintenance and support.
The mobile VACIS units use gamma rays to take X-ray-like images and are mounted on Humvees specially fitted for rough terrain, said Brian Rockwood, SAIC sales and marketing director.
The gamma ray radiation source, Cobalt-60, is on an vehicle, towed by the Humvee, which houses the detector array and workstation for viewing the image.
Set-up takes minutes. The towed vehicle and Humvee are aligned, and the vehicle or cargo to be inspected either passes between them or remains stationary while the Humvee and vehicle move past it. If explosives are suspected, VACIS operators can remove the workstation and perform the scan from as far as 300 feet away.
The fan-shaped gamma ray beam can penetrate as much as six inches of steel and reveal explosives, contraband, human stowaways or secret compartments — “it depends on the skill of the operator to interpret the images,” Rockwood said.
The Army has bought increasing numbers of VACIS units since the 2001 terrorist attacks; eight in 2004, 23 in 2006, and 83 in 2008. Additional units have gone to the Homeland Security Department, Azerbaijan, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Oman and Turkey. With the Safe Port Act requiring 100 percent screening of cargo in storage cabins on passenger planes inbound to the United States by 2010, VACIS sales are likely to increase.
“I don’t see the economic conditions being that closely correlated to VACIS because this is all about fighting the war on terror,” said Kenneth Dahlberg, SAIC’s chief executive officer, during a Dec. 9 earnings call about the fiscal 2009 third quarter. “Especially with the recent wins that we got, our opportunities next fiscal year are going to be strong.” Different VACIS models, tailored to different environments, have been installed at U.S. ports during the past 10 years. Despite increased efficiency — a unit can scan a 40-foot container in a few seconds — the gamma ray technology has raised fears and stirred some controversy among U.S. dockworkers who operate VACIS units.
“It’s not that we’re against new technology,” said Tony Perlstein, secretary and treasurer of International Longshoremen’s Association local 1588 in Bayonne, N.J.
“We’re just concerned that it be implemented to be safe for our workers.” The West Coast union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, specifies that workers remain a minimum of 100 feet from the radiation source. “That’s what we want for ILA workers,” Perstein said.
SAIC’s imagers do more than comply with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) safety guidelines, Rockwood said.
“The secret sauce, if you will, that SAIC has in all of our nonintrusive inspection devices is a patented detector that lets them deliver a good image at a low radiation level, which means that all of our systems are low dose.” An SAIC information guide about VACIS states that “the radiation dose from a VACIS system scan is about equal to one minute of travel in an airliner flying at 30,000 feet.” To exceed NRC annual limits, a person would have to be scanned 5,000 times by a VACIS unit, the guide said.
VACIS sales during the fourth quarter of fiscal 2009 are expected to double, said Mark Sopp, SAIC’s chief financial officer.
Sami Lais is a special contributor to Washington Technology.