January 18, 2010
Dynamic Chamber Puts Chemical Weapons Sensors to the Test
APL engineers have constructed a first-of-its-kind chamber to test the viability of sensors designed to detect chemical warfare agents under realistic battlefield conditions. Although the use of chemical weapons was outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, terrorists have increasingly deployed chemical armaments against civilian and military populations over the past decade. "Our military operates over a wide range of battlefield conditions—whether it be in the high mountains of Afghanistan, [in] the deserts of Iraq, or off ships at sea," notes project manager Thomas Buckley of the National Security Technology Department. "All of these are potential venues for adversary use of chemical warfare agents."
In 2006, the Defense Department's Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense—the focal point for research, development, acquisition, fielding, and life-cycle support for chemical and biological defense equipment and medical countermeasures—asked APL to design and build a test chamber to evaluate technologies and systems intended to detect, protect against, and decontaminate hazards from chemical warfare agents.
By November 2007, engineers had developed the framework for the techniques and methods that would be used in the dynamic test chamber (DTC). With the chamber now completed, it will be disassembled and moved from APL's main campus to its permanent home at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah once APL engineers have verified that it works as intended.
"It represents quite an aerosol science, modeling, design, and engineering feat for APL, and is the state-of-the-art facility for chemical sensor testing, delivering quantified challenges with realistic backgrounds in a controlled manner under a defined temperature, humidity, and air pressure, all of which affect sensor performance," says Pamela Smith, deputy business area executive for APL's Homeland Protection Business Area.
The chamber provides realistic test conditions for evaluating how quickly military detectors pick up chemical warfare agents, Buckley explains. "It operates over a wide range of temperatures, humidity levels, and simulated altitudes while exposing the chemical agent detectors to interferents such as dust, smoke, and diesel exhaust," he says. "Its control systems will allow the monitoring, displaying, and recording of data from systems under test (SUTs) in conjunction with the DTC challenge conditions to allow analysis of the response of the SUT in real time."
Smith says APL has given the government a unique facility capable of delivering dynamic challenges to SUTs. "The chamber will be the first of its kind to provide agent characterization in real time for all test scenarios," she says. "Feedback of additional system parameters will also be available and managed by state-of-the-art software that will control the chamber. All this is done while maintaining a high standard of safety and chemical warfare agent containment." The chamber is being shipped to Dugway Proving Ground for installation and integration with a contractor-built secondary containment system. APL staff will operate it during verification tests with chemical agent simulants next spring, before Dugway staff take over the system and begin testing with actual chemical warfare agents.