By Richard M ArndtSeptember 12, 2018
An international partnership with the United Kingdom has brought a new chemical and biological protective suit testing capability to the U.S. Department of Defense, with U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command Chemical & Biological (RDECOM C&B) Center scientists leading the effort.
The partnership with the U.K.'s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) is part of a larger effort to share information for the good of the bilateral chemical and biological defense community and the warfighter, expanding knowledge and capabilities for both nations.
Currently, the Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology (JSLIST) is the fielded protective suit system used by U.S. warfighters, but JSLIST is due for an upgrade. As U.S. Army priorities change, a more effective, less restrictive protective suit system is necessary.
Once chemical and biological protective suit systems are created, they are put through a rigorous test and evaluation process to ensure they meet the needs of the user. Part of the standard battery of tests has included a human volunteer to wear the ensemble in a simulated environment - known as a Man in Simulant Test (MIST). The partnership with the Dstl makes available a new way to test using high tech mannequins and live chemical warfare agent.
This isn't your department store window mannequin though. Porton Man, as he is named, is a carbon fiber, fully-articulated mannequin used to test the effectiveness of chemical and biological protective suit systems. The mannequin was created by i-bodi Technology and Dstl,
Standing 5'10", Porton Man is covered with several hundred 0.5 inch ports to hold passive cumulative sensors, manually inserted to provide spatial information on how the system is performing. Additional sensors, similar to those used for the U.S. MIST, can be incorporated into the test to cross-compare against U.S. results.
Porton Man also uses six miniaturized Joint Chemical Agent Detectors (JCAD) which fit inside fist-sized body cavities in the mannequin, providing scientists with real-time data during the course of a single test. "Real-time data is some of the most unique information we garner from Porton Man because it shows at which range of motion, orientation, actions and time increments the ensemble performed well or poorly," explained RDECOM C&B Center research chemist Terrence D'Onofrio, Ph.D.
D'Onofrio leads the U.S. involvement in the Porton Man research and has been doing so since 2016 through the Army's Engineer and Scientists Exchange Program (ESEP), which provides collaborative research opportunities with U.S. allies.
What started out as a mission to simply learn about system-level testing quickly turned into something much bigger. After learning about the Porton Man capability, the U.S. Chemical Biological Defense Program (CBDP) began the process of transitioning Porton Man from a science and technology research tool to a test and evaluation capability for U.S. acquisition programs. D'Onofrio worked with the U.S. CBDP community and Dstl to develop a validation plan, enabling the transition. The process of stakeholder interaction, plan development, testing, data analysis, report documentation, and approval signatures was completed in about a year.
In June 2018, Porton Man was endorsed by the Army, which allows data derived from Porton Man to be used for acquisition programs. Porton Man is now validated as an official test method for the U.S. CBDP.
"A transition like this doesn't come around too often, if ever," said D'Onofrio. "It's a big win in the Chem-Bio community."
In the case of Porton Man, the U.S. didn't have the capability on-hand, so it sought it out through a partnership with a trusted ally. "Our partnership benefits both nations. We all bring unique expertise and skill sets to the table and we all improve as we work together." said D'Onofrio.
During a test, which takes about three days from set up to sample collection, Porton Man is outfitted with all the sensors necessary for the test which will collect any chemical material that penetrates the suit during the test. Then the mannequin is dressed in the protection ensemble system slated for testing. For the initial validation, the team has focused on sulfur mustard vapor testing.
Mustard vapor is then pumped into the testing chamber and the mannequin is programmed through a series of movements such as walking, running and kneeing, with various orientations to the wind. The team is stationed outside the sealed, stainless steel chamber at a control station where they control the amount of agent entering the chamber; monitor referee sensors for humidity, temperature and other factors; and control Porton Man's movements and direction.
Once the test is complete, scientists enter the chamber wearing protective suits and to retrieve the sensors from Porton Man. Scientists then analyze how much agent penetrated the suit system through advanced computer programs and develop next steps for improvement of the suit system. From one Porton Man test, scientists will garner more than 5,000 data points. The results of Porton Man tests are studied alongside the results to human tests using agent simulants.
"We compare MIST test data, using real warfighters in a simulated environment, to Porton Man, a simulated person in a real environment, because it allows us to see an overall picture of a specific protective suit system and will ultimately inform decision makers on which protective suit system is best." explained D'Onofrio.
Through heatmaps and data charts from a specific test, D'Onofrio and his U.K. partners can identify flaws like a faulty zipper or weak elastic around a suit's waist skirt. Due to the real-time sensors, the team can determine which movements allowed the most agent to penetrate the suit. For example, a test may show that a particular design allowed more agent penetration when standing still than it would when running.
"Results of Porton Man will ultimately inform a fielding decision for the next generation of CB protective suit systems as part of a formal acquisition program." said D'Onofrio. "Furthermore, they can impact techniques, tactics and procedures warfighters employ take in the field, based on the suit and the threat."
D'Onofrio plans to return to the U.K. in Fall to conduct further testing, and other RDECOM C&B researchers could join him. During future tests, the U.S. will provide suits ready for testing, funding and expertise through D'Onofrio and others.
The team will continue testing new materials and off-the-shelf products. Future tests will increase agent toxicity, including liquid mustard exposures or nerve agents. While increased toxicity also means increased risk to D'Onofrio and his partners at the Dstl, their research ultimately ensures better protection for the warfighter.
"The risk is worth the reward." explained D'Onofrio. "The September 11 attack had a profound effect on me and crystalized my life's mission. I decided to dedicate my time, talent and passion to serving the Soldier through science."