The explosion of the ammunition at a military training ground

VR project set to simulate impact of explosions on structures

Image credit: Igor Dolgov/Dreamstime

Engineers in the US have been granted $4.5m (£3.4m) in funding to assess how explosives and projectiles destroy structures of buildings, realistically depicting it in a virtual-reality (VR) simulation.

The project, funded by the US Army Corps, will show military decision-makers how bombs, bullets and rockets impact structures, so they can reinforce buildings or build sturdier structures to withstand combat operations and protect people.

As part of the study, Colorado State University engineer Dr Hussam Mahmoud will first visualise them falling apart. He will then work alongside the Army Corps of Engineers to simulate these impacts in VR, with the aim to present these findings to army officials and those within the construction industry.

“Understanding the material properties, how these buildings were built and the type of load they can take without collapsing, is really important to develop good strategies for combat operations,” said Mahmoud, an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and principal investigator on the project.

Mahmoud has previously done extensive research on how fire affects structures, and he has also conducted experiments with explosives to determine blast impacts on structures and biological tissues.

Testing with explosives involves many challenges because it is both dangerous and heavily regulated, so there is a shortage of data on the amount of force produced by different magnitudes of explosives and their effects.

For this five-year study, Mahmoud and Mechanical Engineering PhD student Kellan Sullivan will use data from Army Corps explosive testing to develop a neural network. Once trained and evaluated for accuracy, the neural network will calculate the number of pressure blasts various intensities would impose on their surroundings.

Using machine learning and structural engineering, the team will then develop computer models to evaluate how structures behave under specific blast loads. They hope it will provide answers to, for example, if 20lb of TNT detonates at a specific distance from a given structure, how will that structure respond? How does the material fragment, and what is its breaking point?

Once Mahmoud and his team can predict structural performance, they will then analyse how military structures might be better designed to withstand blast loads. They also will create a VR simulation to portray blasts and the resulting damage to the built environment.

Postdoctoral fellow and expert coder Akshat Chulahwat will program the simulation with the help of resources from the university’s Virtual Reality Initiative, which encompasses a fully equipped VR lab.

Mahmoud hopes this research will ultimately help protect civilians all over the world and benefit the public through improved structures. He also believes the project could help mitigate terrorist attacks. “Fighting terrorism is very important because it helps society,” he stressed. “It saves lives.”

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