Using military innovation in civilian life

Forum held at Aberdeen to promote partnerships, showcase new technology

March 30, 2003|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Army researchers demonstrated last week at Aberdeen Proving Ground how military innovations can be applied to everyday life. The scientists presented some of their newest findings last week at a forum to promote public-private partnerships, sponsored by Maryland Technology Development Corp., known as Tedco, a quasi-public fund that promotes economic development.

Those arrangements supplement the Army's funds, which, despite recent increases, suffer from the long decline of federal military spending.

Most of last week's presentations appeared marketable, among them a potential replacement for the insect repellent DEET and sensors that detect whether soldiers and first-responders are talking, wheezing or even breathing.

Teams of researchers at Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Detrick - the Army's centers for chemical warfare, infectious disease and combat medical care research - have developed lightweight stretchers equipped with intensive care equipment to ease a soldier's transport and speed a medic's response time. Ten of them are in Iraq right now.

For chemical attacks, they have developed a polyurethane sponge that can scrub the agents off skin and surfaces. scientists can also detect suspected pathogens in a person's body long before symptoms appear.

More than a quarter of the presentations at the forum focused on methods of dealing with chemical and biological attacks, a reflection of current events, said Stephen Clark, Aberdeen's director for business development.

"We picked technology that would be transferable to the public," he said.

The possibility of using bioweapon protection and detection is more than science fiction. Troops entering Baghdad could face chemical attacks.

Thousands of chemical suits and atropine, an antidote for nerve gas, were found at a military compound in Nasiriyah, Iraq, last week.

Ricin, a poison made from castor beans, has been found in a French rail station and a British apartment this year. In 2001, anthrax was spread through the U.S. postal system.

"The threats of chemical or biological attacks from terrorists are real," said Tara O'Toole, director of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

Threat of attack

"The importance of the biological threat greatly outweighs that of a chemical[threat] and is fundamentally different in character, she said in an e-mail interview. "Bioweapons are, at least theoretically, in class with [nuclear weapons]."

Public-private partnerships have increased sharply over the years, said Clark of Aberdeen's business office. He declined to give exact figures.

At least 10 partnerships have been formed as a result of the Tedco showcases, he said. Related revenues have grown exponentially, he said, and have supplemented where federal funds fell short.

"More important," Clark said, "our assets can be used for the public good."

In the 1980s, Congress required the military to share its discoveries with the public.

"Essentially, it's because the taxpayers paid for research and development," said Jim Zarzycki, director of Aberdeen's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, where biodefense research takes place.

Officially, Army innovation has protected and supported troops since World War I, when mustard gas, phosgene and chlorine were used as munitions. Aberdeen was established in 1917 as a chemical weapons and research facility.

Today, the army calls its research "cutting-edge," saying it extends far beyond chemical and biological warfare. The army's research focuses solely on supporting and protecting troops but can be applied to the marketplace and often is.

Some of its newest products stem from lessons learned in the first Persian Gulf war and are being used in Iraq, including the fast-acting, blood-staunching bandages and a skin-guarding cream for chemical attacks, both of which have been reported on recently in the news media.

An Aberdeen facility developed a fast, efficient anthrax testing kit called Biskit after testers experienced difficulty in the painstaking process of inspecting and cleaning the Hart Senate Office Building in October 2001. It is being licensed.

"There is not a big need in the military for this kind of thing," said Zarzycki of the Edgewood biodefense facility.

"We're not that concerned about indoor conditions; it's more outdoor battlefield stuff. This seemed to have a lot of application, so we are licensing it."

Mainstream market

The Army expects its newest technology to enter the mainstream market.

The Life Support for Trauma and Transport, the new lightweight stretcher, is a miniature intensive-care unit equipped with ventilators, monitors and intravenous units. At 154 pounds, the stretcher is light enough for two, instead of the usual six, soldiers to carry it.

It is designed to give medics lifesaving time and to ease the trip to combat hospitals, which typically are six to 12 hours from the fighting; in Iraq, the average time is four hours, an army spokesman said.

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