IARPA Wants A Magical All-In-One Chemical Detection Tool

They might have to go to Middle Earth to get it

America’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency is filled with a bunch of nerds. At the very least, they’ve got a Lord of the Rings fan in their acronym-making department. Their latest project, open for solicitations last week, is called the “Standoff ILluminator for Measuring Absorbance and Reflectance Infrared Light Signatures,” or SILMARILS. Named for the fictional crystal jewels of Silmarillion fame, SILMARILS is a device that will illuminate and discover trace chemicals from almost 100 feet away.

With SILMARILS in hand, a range of agencies will be able to look for a wide variety of dangerous and/or illegal substances. The IARPA solicitation is a formal request from the agency for businesses to submit ideas for a human portable device. From the solicitation:

Pictured examples of this include scanning hands at a TSA checkpoint for trace chemicals from explosives, detecting meth residue on countertops, and “identifying white powder,” among others. There are already many different devices that do some of the tasks that IARPA wants for SILMARILS, but not a single machine that does it all. As described, SILMARILS will do this with multiple approaches, including infrared spectroscopy as well as algorithms and extensive signature libraries that can cross-check what’s detected against what’s known.

As for the fiction-inspired name? In the text, the Silmarils burn the hands of any evil being who tries to posses them. That’s pretty apt.

Kelsey D. Atherton

Kelsey D. Athertonis a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work on drones, lethal AI, and nuclear weapons has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.