Combining The Art, Science And Business Of Dealing With Explosive
The gallery’s latest show, entitled “SAFE: Design Takes On Risk”, features some 300 different items that have been created to protect mind and body from stressful conditions of one sort or another. The collection, which is on display for the rest of this year, includes a boot constructed by Ottawa-based Med-Eng Systems Inc. for use in clearing land mines.
Dubbed the Spider Boot, the footwear looks like a heavy-duty snowshoe, with a set of peg-like supports on the underside that keep users several centimetres above the ground as they walk. Should they encounter a mine, this elevation and the shielding of the footpad means the difference between a sore ankle and a missing lower limb.
Making such a difference has become the stock in trade of Med-Eng, which arrived in the highly competitive market for protective bomb suits in the early 1980s. The company has come to dominate that market through sales in 140 countries and territories, continuously setting new standards that can only be daunting to anyone who would contemplate offering their own version of such equipment.
Nevertheless, Jon Earey, the company’s director of Explosive Ordnance Disposal and Unexploded Ordnance, says the underlying challenge in the field remains the same as it has always been.
“You can put explosives together and you can set them off,” he says. “You can put explosives together and you can wear a bomb suit and take them apart. But what happens if that bomb goes off when you are in the vicinity of it, wearing a bomb suit? It’s that interface of the bomb functioning and the protection mechanism that exists in today’s ensemble and capability that is key and critical to both the success and survivability of the individual who’s going to wear the kit.”
In other words, the success of the Med-Eng bomb suit is based on an appreciation of how explosives work, how protective materials work, and what explosives disposal technicians need to get on with their jobs.
Achieving this goal starts with testing, and lots of it. Early in its history the company developed intense ongoing relationships with organizations such as the National Research Council, the Department of National Defence, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which offered access to the expertise and the facilities necessary to explore the nature of the forces at work in various types of explosions. Only then was Med-Eng ready to begin addressing the question of how the effects of these forces could be minimized at close range.
“Understanding the technology — understanding the physics and dynamics of the threat — is one thing,” says Earey. “Building a bomb suit or bomb protection equipment is totally different.”
Two decades ago the process might have started with sewing together smocks of heavily insulated material. More recently the company spent several years developing its flagship Explosive Ordnance Disposal suit, the EOD 9, which has incorporated a great deal of computer modeling and live blast testing to determine the final result.
For example, the visor’s clear screen is several centimetres thick, but it must provide an undistorted image for someone who may be examining the minute details of a detonator. In fact, an individual is so well insulated within the suit’s hood that vertigo can result if the visor is flawed. Elaborate software therefore guides the smoothing of this surface to eliminate such problems.
Even more critical has been the issue of enabling users to be comfortable enough to work efficiently.
“You try and do bomb disposal walking down the street without looking like the Michelin Man,” says Earey. “We’ve got to take the principles of optimal protection, but mould them into a flexible, ergonomic, modular capability that enables someone to do their job when they get down to that bomb.”
Beyond simply reducing the weight of the package wherever possible, Med-Eng has also worked on systems for keeping the suit’s internal temperature from soaring. In 2001 the company acquired Pembroke, Ontario-based Delta Temax Inc., which specializes in clothing that incorporates a cold-water circulatory system to prevent individuals from overheating while wearing protective gear.
Formula I race car drivers have taken advantage of this kind of cooling capacity, and the technical benchmarks Med-Eng established in this area have guided NASA in its own work with the suits worn by space shuttle astronauts. For Earey, this is the way such standards should be imposed — with communities of users telling manufacturers what they need, rather than bureaucratic regulatory agencies telling companies what to deliver.
Med-Eng takes this principle even further, sending its personnel to visit customers and potential customers in at least 60 different countries every year. These trips have far less to do with the marketing of equipment than in discussing the nature of the threat facing anyone responsible for removing an explosive device.
According to John Carson, the company’s marketing and communications manager, the goal is to convey the idea that no one is suddenly invincible once they are wearing a bomb suit, since the performance of that suit still depends on the skills and training of the person using it. By showing users exactly where the limitations of this technology lie, Med-Eng cultivates their respect and trust.
“That is a lot different than going in and talking about feature “A”, and the price, and how many would you like,” says Carson.
Earey emphasizes the virtues of this approach, which ensures that no one is under any misapprehension about what something like the EOD 9 does.
“The capability that exists today is phenomenal,” he says, although he notes that progress proceeds at a relatively steady pace, with no dramatic innovations on the horizon. “The refinement of protection over blast on the human body is only as incremental as physics, science, and technology will allow.”
In much the same way, the market for such gear has evolved steadily in recent years. And in contrast to so many areas of international security, the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States were not necessarily a critical milestone.
“From my point of view, not a lot has changed,” says Earey, who points out that bomb disposal expertise was already in demand in places where domestic conflicts had warranted it, such as Spain, Northern Ireland, Colombia, and Indonesia. After 2001, however, it became clear that such activity was more readily capable of transgressing national borders, to making it a truly international phenomenon.
“For the bomb community and bomb scene, the international boundaries ceased,” he explains. “That has focused many more people who have to deliver against the threat with bomb disposal capacity. To develop bomb disposal capability, you’ve got to look at everything from selecting the right people to training the right people to equipping them with the right equipment standards.”
Above all, he adds, this capability is exclusively defensive. Although Med-Eng has clearly accumulated a significant body of knowledge surrounding weapons technology, the company has committed itself only to the manufacture of protective equipment.
“There’s absolutely no political agenda, and it’s even made better by the fact that it’s a Canadian company,” concludes Earey.