Enhancing life

Print edition : August 29, 2008

The Solid State Physics Laboratory of the DRDO in New Delhi. The DRDO recruits engineers and scientists from disciplines ranging from aerospace to life sciences for its various laboratories and specialisations.-V.V. KRISHNAN

The life sciences laboratories strive to make the lives of soldiers as comfortable as possible.

THE Life Sciences and Human Resources group of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) provides the lifeline to soldiers, whether they are posted in the desert sands of Rajasthan, the benumbing cold of Siachen, the micro-environs of bunkers or are flying in their combat aircraft.

The nine laboratories are Defence Agricultural Research Laboratory (DARL), Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand; Field Research Laboratory (FRL), Leh, Jammu and Kashmir; Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL), Mysore, and Defence Bio-Engineering & Electro-Medical Laboratory (DEBEL), Bangalore, both in Karnataka; Defence Research Laboratory (DRL), Tezpur, Assam; Defence Research & Development Establishment (DRDE), Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh; Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS), Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences (INMAS) and Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR), all in New Delhi.

Sample these two research activities of the DIPAS. In the circular Human Decompression Chamber, a soldier is subjected to a simulated environment of an altitude of 20,000 feet (6,000 metres) and -20 Celsius. When a solider sits in the Human Climatic Chamber, the temperature rises to a burning 42C and winds gust up. The soldiers heartbeat, blood pressure and other physiological parameters are monitored. In the selection of soldiers and officers for the armed forces, the DRDO has laid down standards based on rigorous research and arrived at minimum physical standards for different States and ethnic populations.

These laboratories formulate nutritious ration-scales; develop life-support systems for paratroopers dropped from a height of 30,000 feet (9,000 m); design the cockpit of the Light Combat Aircraft Tejas or the drivers compartment of the main battle tank Arjun; develop self-heating gloves and socks for soldiers in Siachen and bio-digesters to treat human waste at that height; and work on bio-diesel.

The products of the laboratories include the FRLs vitamin-rich Leh Berry juice and herbal tea, the DFRLs bottled Cocojal (tender coconut water), preserved chappatis, processed vegetables, ready-to-eat pulav mix, and instant rice and coconut chutney. The DARL has developed an ointment for leucoderma and a herbal anti-eczema ointment Eczit, while the DIPAS has come up with Alocal, an aloe vera-based cream to treat frostbite. More than three lakh bottles of Alocal have so far been sent to soldiers at high altitudes. Other products include the DRDEs kit to detect water-poisoning in the event of nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) warfare and NBC filters, the DRLs kit to remove iron and arsenic from water, the DEBELs NBC respiratory mask and the INMAS titanium bone plates and screws, titanium dental implants, and light-weight foldable stretchers.

W. Selvamurthy, Chief Controller of R&D (Life Sciences and Human Resources), said: These laboratories look into the needs of the men behind the weapons. We have 380 scientists. The mission is to enhance the survivability of these men. Our troops operate in high altitudes, deserts, under water, and in aerospace, closed micro-environment and areas of low-intensity conflict. We have to sustain them in these conditions, optimise their efficiency, and give them the kill power.

If nutrition is a key area that these laboratories work on, they are on another wicket developing clothing such as flying overalls for soldiers in the Indian Air Force, impermeable NBC suits, escape suits for submariners, and anti-G suits for pilots.

The Recruitment and Assessment Centre (RAC) of the DRDO has set up Darpan, a permanent exhibition at its premises in New Delhi to showcase the DRDOs research and technological strength for researchers, job seekers and visitors from India and abroad. The architect of this exhibition is Sanjay Pal, Additional Director, RAC. A highlight of Darpan is the showcasing of the progress made in explosives and propellants by the High Energy Materials Research Laboratory in Pune.

According to the RACs Director Arun Kumar, the centre recruits 600-700 scientists every year in 22 areas. In 2008, we have so far recruited 40 PhDs in various engineering disciplines, life sciences and psychology. We recruit non-resident Indians through video-conferencing, Arun Kumar added.

R.S. Sawhney, Director, Directorate of Life Sciences pointed out that the operational needs of the Indian armed forces forced them to work not only under the sea, where hyperbaria or high pressure of the water column could limit human performance, but also at altitudes of 9,000-20,000 feet in the eastern and western Himalayas, where low oxygen affects a soldiers physical and mental performance. The Siachen glacier, where even the day temperature remains below zero almost throughout the year, is manned by the Army. Soldiers face freezing temperatures up to minus 50C low oxygen level, blizzards, and shelling from the enemy.

On sudden induction to high altitude, the soldier faces problems such as acute mountain sickness, high-altitude pulmonary oedema [HAPO], and high-altitude cerebral oedema, explained Sawhney and Alka Chatterjee, who also belongs to the Directorate of Life Sciences. HAPO and cerebral oedema could be lethal and require immediate evacuation to lower heights. These problems appear less severe when troops are inducted gradually by road to high altitudes instead of sudden induction by air.

A three-stage acclimatisation schedule developed by the DRDO equipped the armed forces to battle these and reduce casualties to a large extent. Nevertheless, a resting period of five days became essential before the troops could be deployed for any active operation, added Sawhney and Alka Chatterjee.

During the 1962 India-China conflict, HAPO and cold injuries such as frostbite and chilblains took a heavy toll on the Indian troops. To circumvent these problems, the life sciences laboratories developed the HAPO bag, a life-support system, which could reduce the hypoxic effects and provide time for evacuating the troops to safer heights. Once inside the bag, the patient will feel as if he or she were at an altitude of 8,000 feet although it may be 18,000 feet. All the patho-physiological changes which led to HAPO will be reversed and the soldier ca n be evacuated to the field hospital.

Selvamurthy said: The system developed by us to administer nitric oxide and oxygen to HAPO patients has been able to save more than 300 lives till date. We have developed a new treatment for protection against cold injuries, which may lead to amputation of affected parts. A combination of pentoxyphylline, aspirin, and vitamin C with application of Alocal has proved to be the most effective treatment. Alocals allopathic version is Prefros.

The DRDO has not stopped here. When soldiers march from the base camp to the Siachen glacier, they can soon wear gloves and socks heated by battery cells. These gloves and socks are under evaluation.

The laboratories have developed life support systems for paratroopers dropped from aircraft at an altitude of 30,000 feet to escape detection by the enemys radars and surveillance systems. Since the temperature at that altitude will be minus 50C, the paratroopers need warm clothing, light-weight oxygen cylinders and so on. While an imported system will cost Rs.12 lakh, the DRDO-developed system costs only Rs.4.5 lakh.

The DIPAS, headed by G. Ilavazhagan, has done some innovative work for protection against noise-induced hearing loss (NIHO). Its carbogen breathing system has helped to combat NIHO among men and women working at airfields, in the engine rooms of the navys ships and so on.

The INMAS, headed by Rajendra Prashad Tripathi, does clinical and fundamental research in non-invasive imaging, development of radio and magneto pharmaceuticals, thyroid research, and development of synthetic and herbal drugs for biological protection and health care.

What is amazing is the variety of processed, ready-to-eat food products developed by the FRL and the DFRL. Selvamurthy said, Every year we transfer 10 technologies in [the] food sector alone to industry. We have developed a self-heating pouch for warm food. The food packet is kept inside a pouch in which calcium oxide touches water, generates exo-thermic reaction and the food is warmed up. The soldier can eat warm food at -40C.

Tejas cockpit design, the pilots anti-G suit, helmet, face mask and oxygen mask were developed by the life sciences laboratories.

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