Getting the Full Value from
CBRN Sensors

By Erik Juel Ellinghaus

CEO, Bruhn NewTech, Denmark

“How to integrate CBRN sensors to increase situational awareness?” has been the question challenging professionals world wide for over a decade.

The Question

The way to get more reliable and timely warnings for those at risk from CBRN hazards in a way that also constitutes a more cost-efficient use of CBRN sensors is evident from several case studies. The key is using software to integrate the sensors and make their results and the analysis of the implications available to all decision-makers in order to increase the number of people protected from airborne threats. But how?

The Role of Sensors is Crucial

Chemical, Biological and Radiological hazards each need to be handled differently, but they also share some common traits. One of the most significant commonalities is that they are invisible threats that our human senses cannot effectively perceive. As a result, once basic CBRN protection is in place, defense forces and public safety organizations worldwide rely on various forms of sensors to increase their ability to deal with CBRN material. 

In the most basic form, using sensors allows the personnel carrying the sensor to realize that they are in danger and should don their personal protective equipment. This reaction is time-critical, since the exposure to most CBRN materials createsa life-threatening condition (and possibly contamination risk) very quickly. This defines one of the complexities of the CBRN response –at the moment the sensor alerts you to danger you are almost out of time already!

Interfacing with a Moving Threat

Another characteristic common among CBRN hazards is that they disperse. To give one extreme example of international significance – the radiation from Chernobyl became known to the world only when it reached Sweden. At the opposite end of the extreme, i.e. local, the life or death of the residents in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta was determined not just by how close they were to the impacts of rockets releasing the nerve agent Sarin, but also by the direction of the airflow which took an invisible cloud through the streets. The movement of these CBRN hazards is determined by air currents. Therefore, the weather is a determining factor in the dispersion patterns when a dangerous material is released outdoors. 

Getting back to the topic of sensors, the best way of saving those in the path of a CBRN hazard is to be able to alert them the cloud is heading their way and to undertake safety measures. Only using the sensor to alert the people at the sensor location is not getting the full benefit of this normally very costly piece of equipment. 

To achieve this goal, the factors we need to get right is to gain access to accurate sensor data immediately and to be able to predict where the hazardous cloud is moving. This requires three important factors working jointly with the sensor:

  • Interfaces
  • Infrastructure 
  • Prediction methods 

A simple patchwork of software solutions will not work for the sensor operator – nor be effective for the sensors needed to safeguard a population. Digital output from sensors is a standard feature today, but each manufacturer has made its own choice in terms of interface technology and the specifications of the sensor output differ for each manufacturer – and sometimes even from one sensor version to the next. This presents more than a headache for the end-user, and it puts people at risk. Many manufacturers will provide a simple software tool to display the sensor output, but this does not achieve the goal for several reasons. For example, these differing software packages lack the ability to feed authorized prediction models. In that case, they only work with sensors from one manufacturer. This is significant because each sensor on the market has its own range of detection capabilities and its own shortcomings. To obtain the full coverage of a realistic threat, several sensors are necessary – and these will come from different manufacturers. Therefore, as noted, a patchwork of software solutions cannot work for the operator. 

Sensor Information Requires Communication Infrastructure

Getting information from sensors distributed within an area requires the existence of communication infrastructure. The most mature users of this solution type today are within the defense forces where the issue of CBRN risk has been well understood for a long time. These very advanced organizations do not want to support yet another piece of equipment, so it is essential that existing “comms” systems can carry critical CBRN information. 

There is now more openness within the public safety and private sectors in terms of using equipment that includes its own communication capability than in the defense sector. Nevertheless, they also face some of the same underlying issues similar to those facing the defense sector end-users – secure communications are paramount, while avoiding any potential cyber threats that could happen in coordination with a CBRN incident and prevent a coordinated response as a result. 

Standardizing Prediction Methods

While interfaces and infrastructures are both areas which lack common and established standardization today, fortunately, the prediction methods for CBRN hazards enjoy standards that include sensible and accepted regulations for all NATO nations which are in use by many nations outside NATO as well. These standards – with the somewhat mysterious names ATP-45(F) and AEP-45(E) – continue to develop, as the threats and the technologies to counter them change. Compliance with ATP-45(F)/AEP-45(E) is considered the highest quality of CBRN knowledge management, providing the operator with the information needed to prioritize who is at risk and when. 

CBRN and the Internet of Things (IOT)

If the previously described situation seems familiar to you, it might be due to its similarity to many other applications outside the CBRN field.  An IOT solution is when a number of devices are linked through a network whereby software produces analysis of the data and provides some kind of guidance to the end-user. With IOT being one of the fastest growing information management trend in the world today, it can make you wonder why it is lacking within CBRN. This proven technology is available and deployable, but it is applicable in a piecemeal fashion in most nations.

An Ideal CBRN Response Unit

A case illustrating how one of the leading nations in CBRN sensor integration addressed some of the issues discussed previously in this article is the Dutch CBRN Response Unit. When procuring three CBRN reconnaissance vehicles, the decision was taken to procure these platforms, and the Dutch military stationed at the CBRN-Response Unit in Vught would operate them. However, these mobile detection platforms will also support the Dutch Firefighters, Police and other First Responders when responding to emergencies with a suspected serious CBRN threat. 

These mobile platforms can provide rapid scene assessment so that appropriate action can occur. The sensor equipment gathering data is from several manufacturers, however the software solution managing all of the data inputs – in this case the Bruhn NewTech SCIM® – is sensor-agnostic, meaning it facilitates the collection, flow, processing and dispersion of critical data from all of the otherwise disparate sensors. Moreover, this plug-and-play solution is able to interface with the sensors and integrate the various collected information into a single output with little to no latency within a seamless IT environment. This particular solution provides sensor data for what is known as CBRN-Analysis – the CBRN knowledge management software used by the Netherlands as well as more than 80% of NATO nations. In this way, the predicted hazard becomes part of creating the common operation picture without the risk of delay and error involved in manual information processing. 

The Ideal: Automated Guidance

The Dutch case illustrates how linking the “feed” of CBRN data with a wider IT network makes decisions happen when accurate situational awareness is available. Other options exist at both the feeding and the analysis level of the described solution. One key factor determining the “right solution” is the user profile. The Dutch opted for leveraging the well-trained military personnel for use in a homeland security scenario, whereas other nations have used SCIM® and CBRN-Analysis to establish nationwide CBRN monitoring using civilian operators. 

A more recent development provides the SafeZone solution with a web browser interface, allowing a civilian user to easily access the complex CBRN-Analysis calculations. More than matter of ease, user interface simplicity shifts the focus from merely providing an overview of CBRN hazards to actually providing guidance to the decision maker about how to handle the event – and why. 

More Than CBRN Knowledge Management in a Nutshell

Unlike a fire hazard which is detectable by human senses, a CBRN incident is only detectable with technology. This is the only way we can understand present or developing dangers and take action to protect the population and the personnel deployed in the area. The traditional purpose of sensors is to initiate a local alarm, allowing those nearby to follow prescribed protective measures. But a sensor can provide more value in a much wider area as well as in a much more timely fashion if connected to a network and linked to some sort of sensor-agnostic CBRN knowledge management software in compliance with the NATO standards ATP-45 and AEP-45. This fielded technology is mature and in use in many NATO and non-NATO nations. It is readily available from leading specialist companies as an affordable, plug-and-play, Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) solution without any delay or risk involved.  

Erik Ellinghaus has worked with CBRN software since inventing the CBRN-Analysis system in 1985. CBRN-Analysis has become the de-facto standard for CBRN Knowledge Management in use by more than 80% of NATO nations. Erik Ellinghaus is also a member of the NATO Panel developing the NATO standards for CBRN  Knowledge  Management, where he first participated in 1989. Today Erik  Ellinghaus is the CEO of Bruhn NewTech.