WSLAT - Unique by Design and Definition
By Al Vogel
Dr. Wing Tsang is serious one moment and grins the next when he says “wiz-lat.” He’s certain it will save lives someday – that’s the serious side – but he can’t help grinning with pride that it’s likely unique.
Dr. Wing Tsang, a microbiologist who has overseen the WSLAT project from the beginning, stands in the glovebox where detectors and other defenses will be prepared prior to testing. In the background are two biological agent detectors in the testing chamber, moved there along the stainless steel track at his feet.
Unique. That word is often misapplied today, but the dictionary defines it as, “being the only one of its kind.”
The Whole System Live Agent Test chamber (WSLAT) at Dugway Proving Ground is certainly unique. It’s the first in the Department of Defense. Tsang and others believe it is the first in the world.
The WSLAT is designed to test detectors/ identifiers that warn of the presence of biological agent aerosols and identify the agent. These include anthrax, plague, and the toxin that causes botulism – typical biological agents that might be weaponized by terrorists or rogue nations.
In late 2009, The Department of Defense Joint Project Manager for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Contamination Avoidance (JPM NBC CA) awarded a $13.7 million contract to Teledyne Brown Engineering, Inc., of Huntsville, Ala.
Teledyne Brown designed WSLAT, fabricated its components, then shipped them to Dugway. From January to June 2012, HHI Construction of Farmington, Utah installed the WSLAT within the renovated Baker Laboratory, a massive building dating to the early 1950s.
But the WSLAT is not yet ready for detector/identifier testing. It must undergo verification and validation testing, to ensure that it works properly and safely. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) will certify the chamber for safety and reliability, before testing begins.
The WSLAT should be ready for its first detector test next summer.
What makes WSLAT unique? Two key features, thanks to its test chamber that’s 23 feet long, 13 feet wide and nearly 9 feet high.
First, the WSLAT allows the testing of biological agent detectors in their entirety.
Currently, bio-detectors at Dugway are tested in chambers no larger than one cubic meter (35 cubic feet) in volume. Individual components that sample air, identify a threat and notify the operator are tested separate from the entire detector. This lacks realism.
“Ideally, if you want to test a detection system, you test it as it would be manufactured, not modifed, because that’s how they’re going to use it in the field,” said Tsang, a microbiologist who has overseen the WSLAT project at Dugway’s Life Sciences Division since its inception in 2009.
Secondly, WSLAT will be able to test two bio-detectors side-by-side in its large chamber, believed to be another world-first.
The glovebox where the detectors are prepared, and moved into the chamber on a track. The WSLAT was still under construction when this photo was taken. The portals for gloves are seen along the glovebox, through which the detectors are prepared for testing. In the distance are biological detectors, used to test the track system, in the testing chamber.
“If one system goes down, you can continue testing, or you can compare System A to System B, while they’re being challenged with a live biological agent,” Tsang said.
The WSLAT’s unique attributes will aid many in biological defense.
“The entire test community, including the project management offices that build the detector/identifiers, the system evaluators – and most importantly – the Warfighters should benefit from the chamber’s size, environmental control capabilities and extended aerosol dissemination capabilities,” said Mr. Chee Chan, an engineer and team leader with the JPM NBC CA.
“Using this test fixture will provide the user – the Warfighter – with a better understanding of the capabilities and limitations of systems in a battlefield,” said Derek Harberts an engineer with the JPM NBC CA.
Dugway is only licensed to store and test with agents up to BioSafety Level 3, for which there is a vaccine or cure. Dugway does not store or test with BSL-4 agents, which have no cure or vaccine and are tightly controlled.
But realistically, a biological attack would likely involve a BSL-3 agent, because producing them requires a far less-sophisticated lab, and BSL-3 agents are more readily available from illicit sources.
Testers could use simulants: benign microbes with the same characteristics as bio-agents. But to really challenge a bio-detector you must use its raison d'être: live biological agent. After all, it may someday monitor a battlefield, a public event or airport.
Because live agents are used, the WSLAT is designed for safety. Its design includes multiple negative pressure barriers, and ultra-high performance filters, that make agent escape from the WSLAT impossible. Air from the WSLAT goes into the large room that houses it, which also filters the air before release outdoors.
A worker installs instrumentation around the exterior of the chamber. The walk-in chamber can accommodate two large biological agent detectors, testing them simultaneously. The WSLAT is made almost entirely of stainless steel, for longevity and resistance to decontaminants.
Jutting from the WSLAT are three, long gloveboxes – sealed, stainless steel “wings” with glove portholes along their sides. Instruments and detectors are prepared for each test by using the sealed gloves.
One glovebox houses the bio-detector(s) to be tested. Once prepared, the detector is moved into the test chamber along a stainless steel track.
The dissemination glovebox is where the test begins; scientists generate biological aerosols that mimic an attack. These aerosols are then introduced into the test chamber, for detection and identification by the system under test.
Two other gloveboxes contain referee instruments that provide information on the aerosolized bio-agent, to ensure test parameters are met.
The entire WSLAT, apart from viewing windows, is constructed of stainless steel to resist strong decontaminants that inactivate any residual bio-agents after the entire test is completed.
The WSLAT will ensure that, if a detector passes testing, it may be trusted to be accurate under a wide range of conditions. Upon this trust will be based crucial, life-altering decisions.
Ultimately, the saving of untold lives may someday be traced to a test chamber in the remote Utah desert that correctly defines the word, unique.
Al Vogel is a writer and photographer for the Public Affairs Office at Dugway Proving Ground. He was previously a documenting photographer for Dugway’s West Desert Test Center.