A high-tech firm based in Ashland has been awarded $18 million in contracts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use its technology to detect unexploded munitions on old military bases in the United States.

A high-tech firm based in Ashland has been awarded $18 million in contracts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use its technology to detect unexploded munitions on old military bases in the United States.

Sky Research, Inc. received the first $9 million contract on Thursday, followed by another on Friday, company spokesman John Steinbergs said.

Each contract allows the Corps to assign the firm up to $9 million worth of work, he said.

"We call the work 'environmental remediation,' but it is basically cleanup work at old military munition sites — old bombing ranges, things like that," he explained, noting most of the sites are World War II-era ranges used for bombing and artillery practice.

The firm, whose operations headquarters is in Denver, also has offices in Boston and Vancouver, British Columbia, and employs about 100 people.

In partnership with the Corps, Sky Research has developed a process known as wide area assessment, or WAA, which uses advanced geophysical, aviation, engineering and remote-sensing technologies to detect the unexploded bombs or shells, he said.

"We use high airborne sensors to cover a vast amount of acreage in a day — thousands of acres," he said. "We are looking for historical evidence of munitions activities."

The firm uses light detection and ranging technology, or LIDAR, which uses a laser beam fired from an aircraft to map the landscape below. Measuring the beam after it bounces back to the aircraft allows for precise measurement of the land, he said.

"We can take a very large site, say 100 square miles, cover it with a high airborne sensor, looking for indications of where munitions activities took place," he said. "That would include a crater, (or things like) old roads leading to a spot in the middle of nowhere."

The data is used to zero in on areas where munitions would likely be located, eliminating areas where there is no evidence of explosions, he said. Basically, LIDAR makes it possible to look past the vegetation.

"After we narrow down the big sites into more manageable pieces, we then use low airborne sensors," he said.

That entails using a helicopter drone flying about three meters above the ground while carrying a device capable of detecting ferrous metal, he said.

"This system can cover hundreds of acres a day," he said. "It allows us to see the density of problem areas and locate positions. Once we locate them, we do a ground system search."

The ground search includes devices such as metal detectors, he said.

"That pinpoints the ordnance, so we can clean it up," he said.

The firm's founders, Sky — who goes by only one name — and Anne Sky, both veteran pilots, started the firm in Kerby, a small community in the Illinois Valley about 25 miles south of Grants Pass. It has been based in Ashland since the mid-1990s.

In addition to detecting munitions at active and former military sites, the company has provided mapping services for NASA and the U.S. Army.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.