Helicopter to fly over campus in the name of science

People at UC Berkeley may notice the distinct sounds of a helicopter Wednesday as it flies over campus. The flyovers are part of a federal project to measure naturally occurring radiation in the environment.

Image taken of a helicopter flight over the UC Berkeley campus in 2012. (Photo by Victor Negut)

Image taken of a helicopter flight over the UC Berkeley campus in 2012. (Photo by Victor Negut)

The U.S. Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) helicopter is scheduled to fly over San Francisco, Berkeley, Richmond, Pacifica and Oakland this week (Sept. 1-6). The flights over the UC Berkeley campus are scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 2.

There will be one in the morning at the main campus, and one in the afternoon at the Richmond Field Station, for a total flight time of two to five hours. The helicopter, equipped with gamma radiation sensing technology, will be following pre-determined grid patterns at altitudes as low as 300 feet, traveling about 80 miles per hour.

The flyovers are part of a research project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, and is meant to improve aerial radiation measurement capabilities used by local, state and federal entities.

Leading the research is Brian Quiter, staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Applied Nuclear Physics program, in collaboration with Kai Vetter, UC Berkeley professor-in-residence of nuclear engineering.

“Background measurements in a wide range of environments are critical to establish baselines and to improve detection capabilities of nuclear materials,” said Vetter, who makes radiation data from highly sensitive air monitors available to the public through his RadWatch site.

The project has already gathered measurements from other cities around the country, including Las Vegas, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The researchers said the San Francisco Bay Area, in particular, offers a mix of geological features – mountains, shoreline and cityscapes – that benefit the study.

“Flying over an urban setting with hills and mountains nearby, for instance, allows us to determine how significant terrain features affect our ability to determine the characteristics of naturally occurring background radiation,” said Quiter.

More information about this week’s flyovers are available in this NNSA press release.