COTS is boon to Army chemical and biological warfare test experts

Jan. 1, 2001
Only a few years ago, experts testing the effectiveness of electronic detectors and protective clothing for chemical and biological warfare relied on expensive, inefficient, and slow test equipment.

By John Keller

DUGWAY PROVING GROUND, Utah — Only a few years ago, experts testing the effectiveness of electronic detectors and protective clothing for chemical and biological warfare relied on expensive, inefficient, and slow test equipment.

COTS equipment in wide use at the U.S. Army West Desert Test Center to test special clothing that protects military personnel against chemical warfare agents. U.S. Army photos by Melanie Moore.
Click here to enlarge image

It is a different story today, thanks largely to the broad and growing use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) test equipment in the West Desert Test Center at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah.

"We are relying more and more on the medical industry for our instruments," says Richard T. Mitchell, principle engineer at contractor Lockheed Martin Systems Support and Training Services, who is based at Dugway Proving Ground. "Our move to COTS test gear here started about one and a half years ago."

The West Desert Test Center, which lies about 60 miles southwest of Salt Lake City on the fringes of the Great Salt Lake Desert, is the U.S. Department of Defense center of excellence for testing equipment to defend against chemical and biological warfare attacks.

The center has three major facilities: the Life Sciences Test Facility, the Combined Chemical Test Facility, and the Materiel Test Facility.

It is inside the walls of these compounds where experts use real chemical and biological agents, as well as benign simulants, to test detection, protection, and decontamination equipment. In the life sciences lab scientists use agents such as smallpox and anthrax. In the chemical lab, they use actual nerve agents, blister agents, and blood agents.

At the chemical lab, scientists use tightly controlled chambers to test the effectiveness of protective clothing, hoods, and gas masks against highly lethal nerve agents such as VX and sarin.

Inside these chambers are models of human heads and torsos with equipment that creates airflow in and out of the models' mouths to simulate the air movement of human breathing.

As recently as two years ago, these experts used expensive custom-designed test equipment that rarely gave them accurate results in real time. Today, however, the laboratory represents a collection of COTS test equipment that not only costs less than older equipment, but also gives quick and accurate results.

Where recently custom-designed chemical test systems reigned supreme, for example, today a ventilator from Respironics Inc. of Pittsburgh, Pa., provides air flow to help simulate breathing during chemical-protection experiments, Mitchell points out.

To simulate human lungs, test center technicians use a COTS artificial lung from Michigan Instruments Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich. Michigan Instruments makes the PneuView Ventilator Testing and Training System for nursing students and other medical officials to realistically simulate human pulmonary mechanics.

While most Michigan Instruments customers use this system for evaluating, testing, or demonstrating mechanical ventilation devices and techniques, chemical warfare experts at the West Desert Test Center use it to determine the effectiveness of protective masks and clothing.

The experts at Dugway couple the ventilator to drive one artificial lung, and simulate a second lung by slaving it with a simple spring to the first lung, Mitchell says.

Before this setup "we used a custom-designed system that cost $40,000 and did not do as efficient a job at simulating human lungs," Mitchell says.

The use of COTS equipment does not stop at the artificial lung system. Controlling temperature during chemical-protection experiments is a COTS constant- temperature bath from Lauda of Germany, Mitchell points out. The fluid used in the bath is Fluorinert from 3M Corp.

To determine concentrations of chemical agents the Dugway specialists use an Agilent 6890 Series GC System gas chromatograph from the Agilent Technologies, Inc. Chemical Solutions business unit in Palo Alto, Calif., which gives accurate results in real time, Mitchell says.

The Agilent COTS gas chromatograph replaces a less efficient custom solution based on the use of glass impingement tubes, which sometimes took days to yield results, he says.

Other pieces of COTS test and measurement equipment in use at the West Desert Test Center include the IACM 980 from Dynatherm Corp. of Hunt Valley, Md., to measure low-concentration agents, the Lab View test software from National Instruments in Austin, Texas, and the GC Chem Station from Agilent Technologies.

The last two software packages run at Dugway on Hewlett-Packard Windows NT workstation computers.

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