Device detects biological agents in air

One of its developers opening lab in Harford

March 16, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

By summer, the Defense Department plans to put in the field a device to detect airborne biological agents that is billed as the world's most advanced system of its kind and the first to be used by all branches of the military.

The device, the Joint Biological Point Detection System (JBPDS), is a hallmark in the evolution of biological detection equipment, which has, until a few years ago, taken a back seat to the development of chemical-detection devices.

JBPDS "is the next-generation system," said Bill Altman, a project manager with Battelle, a national nonprofit research company with a new laboratory-office complex in Aberdeen that works on chemical and biological defense issues.

JBPDS is fully automated and gulps in nearly 1,000 liters of air a minute, Altman said. It integrates the air with liquid and screens for suspected agents. If the system detects such a "signature," it analyzes the liquid sample in 15 to 20 minutes.

Military and industry officials say that is a vast improvement from Desert Storm, when crews in the field had little protection from agents as they sampled air with equipment that took hours to respond and had a high rate of false alarms.

JBPDS "will be the most advanced piece of tactical biological detection equipment in the world," said Col. Chris Parker, head of the project management office of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defense Systems, based at Aberdeen Proving Ground. "I don't know of anybody who will have equipment as good."

The Defense Department plans to buy about 1,000 units this spring and begin fielding them with three platoons, seven units per platoon, in June, Parker said. The units are expected to cost $250,000 to $300,000 apiece, he said.

He said the Defense Department does not expect to quickly field the units if war breaks out in Iraq. Instead, other detection devices previously fielded will be used, he said, such as the Biological Integrated Detection System used by the Army and the Air Force's Portal Shield.

One of the selling points of JBPDS is that for the first time, the military branches will all be using the same piece of detection equipment. The units will complement already-fielded detection equipment, but the goal eventually will be for all the services to use common equipment, Parker said.

Though "chem-bio" has become shorthand in discussions of homeland and military security, chemical and biological threats are quite different when it comes to detection.

Chemical agents stand out fairly easily in the environment, but biological agents blend in with the spectrum of naturally occurring microorganisms.

"They're not the same at all," said Dr. Tara J. O'Toole, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies. "There's not sarin in the air normally, but the microbial world rules the environment."

A range of chemical agent detectors are in the field, some as small as a toaster or a walkie-talkie. But researchers have faced a more daunting task in trying to accurately collect biological warfare agent samples.

"They've made an enormous amount of progress," said John Pike, director of Global, a suburban Washington military think tank. But chemical detection equipment is years ahead of biodetection capabilities, he said.

Corporate and government officials say that for many years, chemical detection research received more attention and funding because the threat was perceived to be greater. Desert Storm marked a turning point in defense planning, and more resources were put into both chemical and biological defense.

According to the Defense Department's Chemical and Biological Defense Program's annual report for last year, $402.4 million was spent on the chem-bio defense program. The funding request for fiscal 2003 is $1.374 billion.

Pike said that with the rise of terrorism and with nations such as Iraq building biological warfare programs, "the perception of the problem has been enlarged."

Advances in biotechnology have raised the possibility of spot detection of biological agents rather than waiting to see a rash of people in emergency rooms. "That wouldn't have been imagined three or four decades ago," he said.

The Army is in the early stages of research on a "standoff" biodetection system that could be placed upwind of troops, but it probably wouldn't be in the field until 2006 or later, Parker said.

Handheld devices are at least a decade away, military and corporate officials said.

At the forefront of the JBPDS project is Battelle, which worked with Intellitec to develop the device. Battelle's laboratory-office complex in Aberdeen opens tomorrow, putting it closer, company officials say, to one of its largest clients, Aberdeen Proving Ground.

C. Warren Mullins, vice president of business development for the new Eastern Regional Technology Center, said the company works closely with the proving ground on "chemical detection, biological detection, decontamination of chemical and biological agents and physical protection."

According to a recent article in Defense Week, a Pentagon tester raised concerns last month about some of JBPDS' detection, identification and reliability capabilities, but Parker said the component's detectors have been changed to improve them and the system overall.

Parker said the devices are being tested at U.S. bases, including APG and Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, and that troops training around the country are using the units and providing useful information about how to make them easier for soldiers to use in the field.

Parker said that before the Persian Gulf war in 1991, "we knew there was a [biological] threat out there. Desert Storm is really the first time that we put devices in the field to try to detect a biological attack. We've been trying very hard to improve those devices."

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