Blank Canvas: How do we isolate pathogens, but not scientists?

One problem, three teams, no constraints

January 2022

Words by WSP teams,
as told to Katie Puckett

The challenge

Heinz Feldmann has spent his career studying lethal pathogens, wearing a space suit inside an airtight, heavily serviced box-within-a-box with thick concrete walls. As a scientist specializing in disease modelling and transmission at the US’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, he is accustomed to working in the highest level of containment laboratories, known as BSL-4 — some of the world’s most secure, and most regulated, buildings. 

Feldmann is well aware that there is never a blank canvas for a high-containment lab: “Literally everything is dictated by international and national guidelines. As scientists, there is not much we can request.” 

But there is room for improvement, in one area in particular: technology. “The biggest challenge we have is connectivity, monitoring and data exchange. If we could make high-containment areas compatible with new technology, it would make our work much easier and safer.”

“Literally everything is dictated by international and national guidelines. As scientists, there is not much we can request”

The thickness of the walls and the material used mean that wireless signals cannot pass through, so Feldmann and his colleagues have only limited options including a standard telephone line to the outside. This is frustrating from a collaboration point of view, but also adds to the risk. “We largely work in a buddy system and always have a third person outside — but if you have an emergency, you need reliable communications to be able to speak to them at any time.”  

There are many cameras throughout the facility, monitored by guards, but these are primarily to ensure biosecurity and prevent malicious actions. “We use these systems to create a safe working environment, but that’s not what they’re optimized for, and they’re not very helpful for operation and training purposes. It would be great to install systems to monitor laboratory work from the outside, because just to go in and out takes a minimum of 30 minutes and a shower. If you have to do that multiple times a day, it gets cumbersome.” 

Connectivity is a problem too for the growing amount of high-tech, digital equipment that scientists use. Each time the core structure is penetrated — to install an additional data connection, for example — it must be sealed, and the entire building approved and recertified, which means a complete shutdown. “This is a challenge on a daily basis, because scientists come up with ideas all the time and they want to try new things. How can we fix this with minimum downtime for the facility?”



Team US

The first question our tech experts had was why humans need to go into these challenging environments at all — surely we could remotely control a robot within the lab that would never have to leave? The capabilities of robotics have escalated rapidly in the last few years, and we’re slowly seeing adoption in related sectors like healthcare. But there are so few of these facilities and they do such specialized work — they’re always on the frontline of new discoveries and when there’s a disease outbreak or a pandemic, it’s suddenly all hands on deck. Robotics technology just isn’t there yet, even for regular labs. And even when it catches up, the issue of enabling more intuitive communications remains — whether that’s among people or between people and equipment. 

“This is not about developing completely new technology — most of this is commercially available today”

What we can do today is put in the physical infrastructure and potentially a converged system data network to enable future flexibility and provide the capacity to implement automation technologies as they become available.

There can be statutory obstacles to creating a converged data network — there are security requirements for these facilities to operate in an unplugged manner, so they’re not connected to the outside world. But we could have an internally networked ecosystem, so that scientists could just plug devices in. We’ve done this for a recent high-containment lab project, and we’re looking at integrating remote cameras into the lab space, which could be placed in such a way that the scientists can observe what’s going on without having to go inside. Then when remote technologies are better developed, the scientists could sit in a control room next to the containment area, still within this protected network and communications channel. One of the questions we get a lot on these projects is whether it would be possible to call outside, in case of an emergency. If the phones are connected to the network via a secure digital switch, you could do this without compromising security.

One of the first things to consider for future implementation would be voice-activated controls. Instead of having to push a button, which is difficult when you’re wearing a lab suit, scientists could wear a headset and issue voice commands, similar to “Alexa” or “Hey Google”. People are already used to interacting with voice activation in the consumer market so it wouldn’t be a huge leap to use it in a more professional environment. These could be pre-set voice commands, or even just number codes that are pre-programmed to mean certain outputs, which would be easier for the system to recognize with different accents or dialects. All commands would be logged, so you have the ability to go back through a video and see who pressed what button and what it did, and voice commands could also enable voice-to-text for note-taking.

Another technology to consider is proximity activation — you could wave your hand in front of a sensored device to activate it, or you could raise your hands to your head to activate your headset. Obviously there would need to be some safeguards because you don’t want some machine to start up prematurely. You could make the activation object very small and set the minimum and maximum distances you have to be from it, so that it has to be a very deliberate move.

The large monitors that display status information about the lab could also be used to display messages and notes. If two people are working together, one side of the screen could be for note-taking and the other could be a voice-to-text chat box. You would have a constant scrolling message of the conversation between users which would be recorded and saved. Then at the end of your lab session, you’d have a transcript of everything that was said, so researchers wouldn’t have to rely on their memories for everything or they could go back and check something if they thought it might be important later on. In future there might not even need to be a screen. With AR, a holographic display or something like Google Glass, researchers could call up a 3D representation of their workstation and use hand gestures to rotate it or zoom in.

This is not about developing completely new technology — most of this is commercially available today. We just need to create the ecosystem to allow it to be applied in a high-containment environment. Then we could build it in a simulated VR/AR environment so that the laboratory team could make sure it was meeting their needs before it was implemented.

On our most recent BSL-4 project, we’ve installed extra connectivity to avoid the issue of recertification when new equipment is installed. We’ve included more data outlets, but also a very capable wireless network and we’ve added an extra dark fibre so that if additional services are needed, there will already be a large bandwidth connection in place.

From WSP in the US

Isaac Chen / solutions architect, building technology systems / San Francisco
Victoria Childs / lead consultant, building technology systems / Atlanta
Jason M Beck / director, innovation advisory / Tempe
Herbert Els / managing director, building technology systems / Boulder
Leslie Gartner / senior vice president, science + technology design / Atlanta
Paul Langer / director, innovation advisory / San Francisco
Donald Latham / director, building technology systems, southeast region lead / Atlanta
Jay Wratten / national practice leader, innovation advisory / Boulder


Team UK

All of these problems could be solved with a single fibre connection into the space — once you have that, you can have a comprehensive wireless solution with as many access points as you need, and you can keep all of the other equipment outside of the laboratory environment with no bottleneck in capacity or infrastructure limitation. This seems relatively straightforward for a new-build, but how can you retrofit it in an existing lab without any downtime? 

We wondered what else we could piggyback on that might already be in the room. However rudimentary the current connectivity is, we know there must be power. So the fastest, most reliable option would be to send data over the electricity cables using powerline adapters. One adapter would be plugged into a socket inside the lab, and the other outside in the office space, as long as it’s part of the same power distribution network. This could then produce a local wireless network within the lab that devices could connect to — it’s not as high-quality as a fibre connection but it’s quite reliable. This could introduce a security issue, so the data would have to be encrypted at either end. 

If the existing cameras are on an old coaxial system, could we bore out the copper wire from the middle of that cable and drive some fibre through the gap? It would take specialist equipment, but individual fibre optic cables are microns thick, like a strand of hair, so fibre would be smaller in diameter than any copper. The physics of it would work — the question is how you get the fibre through. You would still have a breach of the containment, but it might be easier to deal with.

“Could we bore out the copper wire from the middle of an existing coaxial cable and drive some fibre through the gap?”

We talked about using the concrete walls for data transfer. If we could transmit at a low enough frequency — far lower than the current licensed and unlicensed frequency ranges for the latest wireless standards — you could arrive at a frequency that would be able to get through the wall, though how useful that would be for data transmission would be another question. There would be issues with reflectance off the rebar, and distortion of the signal as it goes from one side of the mass to the other. If you were trying to send lots of signals through different walls that were joined up, there might be some interference … 

You could, of course, send data over the phone cable itself. The speed would depend on how old it is, but even if it’s from the late 1990s when we were just getting our head around ISDN and ADSL connections, you could still get transfer rates of a couple of megabits per second, which would be sufficient for many internet of things applications or for wireless cameras that would allow remote monitoring from outside. That stuff is generally low bandwidth. 

If they were installing more modern security or remote monitoring cameras, providers now offer occupancy-related analytics services. So rather than having a security guard watching the livestream, there is analytics software that can sit on top of the system and convert the images into occupancy data. So you could have a 360° camera on the ceiling, totally isolated on a wireless network within the room, but hopping out on the powerline connection. The analytics could take place on a secured cloud-based system, or the whole system could run on the premises. The local hardware could use machine learning to convert the images into data points, and send alerts to help the scientists monitor whatever they need to. 

From WSP in the UK

David Healy / director, building services / London
Mark Ince / head of building technology systems / Birmingham
Matthew Palmer / director, structural engineering / Cambridge
Michael Trousdell / director, smart buildings and sustainability / London
David Williams / director, building physics / Basingstoke


Team Australia

One thing that labs could take from digital healthcare spaces is haptics solutions. You could have an android “person” within the space that could see and touch and feel and lift objects in the same way you can, and you would control it from outside. The droid would essentially become you in the space — like an avatar, but you’d be there in full form. 

If you’re looking after a person with Ebola, you want to be able to feel and touch and do something for them, so you need to have something that’s your eyes and ears and arms and legs on the ground. You will never get that real human-to-human contact with virtual reality. In robotics surgery, you’ll have doctors sitting inside something that looks like a Transformer, and they control it to do what they need to do inside the patient space. In the lab, the droid would be there all the time, so there’s no need to let anything in or out, and whoever needs to be in there could log in and take control of it. 

“We don’t want it to have AI, we just want it to be intelligent enough to know not to hit people in the space as it’s turning”

The droid could work alongside humans that are present in the space or participate in an experiment — so if you’re in the lab, you could collaborate within someone anywhere in the world without them needing to be there. The face of the person controlling it might be projected on a screen on the front, and it would look at you and talk to you at eye level. We’re used to not seeing the whole body to communicate — now we often see headshots and that’s all.

Something like this could have multiple uses, depending on who is controlling it. It’s not just about video conferencing or communication. The droid could be controlled by a collaborator, or a safety officer or government security official. It could be used for training. If something happens and you need to get out quickly, or someone collapses inside, the droid could lift them to safety in the decontainment section or airlock.

From The Possible 08

Download the issue

There are a lot of these funky looking robots that are nearly humanoid but they’re automated. What we really want here is to take one step back. We don’t want it to have AI, we just want it to be intelligent enough to know not to hit other people in the space as it’s turning, because the controller probably can’t see them. But that control needs to be fully translated back to the human.

We haven’t seen the need or the use for this kind of direct control, but it could be applied in lots of spaces where travel may be limited or it’s not possible to participate physically. If you can get the pressure and the touch right between the control station and the droid, you would feel natural in that environment even if something else is doing everything for you. With this, we’re not just trying to mimic cutting and stitching, we’re trying to mimic full human behaviour. But we’re fairly close. There are some amazing industrial robotics that can be completely programmed, or they’re AI-based so they have a learning algorithm, and we have really good control and haptics feel from surgery. So this is about merging a lot of technologies that we have already in really specialized operating theatres in healthcare or large automation factory floors. It sounds like real sci-fi stuff but all of this is possible — it just needs to be relayed through to this sector.

From WSP in Australia

Roneel Singh / director, technology systems / Melbourne

Leave a comment