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How engineering is responding to the risk of terrorist attacks

Emirates Stadium

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For the public, terrorist attacks are often remembered geographically such as Westminster Bridge and Borough Market. For professionals in civil engineering, such events are often categorised from a design and risk perspective. Analysis, from individual buildings to public infrastructure, looks at ‘hostile vehicle mitigation’, ‘incendiary’ or ‘kinetic’ attacks. With the level of risk increasing, there is now a range of co-operative initiatives and research – all aiming to maximise the effectiveness of building design when under all such types of attack.

Achieving resilient infrastructure

Areas that need engineering expertise to minimise risk and provide protection include homes, offices, factories, transport hubs and utilities. Yet all must still function without becoming fortresses.

This balance between the protection and function of the working systems within our cities is known as ‘resilience’. Achieving such resilience is a concern being addressed by commercial, political and academic organisations alike. Infrastructures in the world’s major conurbations need to address resilience due to threats from terrorist attack; resilience elsewhere may be needed to combat climate change.

UCL Security and Crime Science, a department within UCL Engineering, one of the UK's most prestigious engineering institutions is now leading the RIBS (Resilient Infrastructure and Building Security) initiative with seven partners across Europe. They aim to design simulations, permitting modelling of security suggestions and attack scenarios. Elsewhere, Warwick University is the home of the Resilient Cities Laboratory.

London – a global leader in built environment initiatives

London is a primary target, yet also a leading example in protective initiatives with subtle and not so subtle elements known as the Ring of Steel. The City of London Police 2016/7 report announced plans to strengthen this city boundary still further. Learning from its long history with IRA attacks, the city is well ahead of the curve.

Outside one of its most famous football grounds stands an example of architectural and resilient civil engineering design. The seven concrete letters spelling Arsenal out outside the Emirates Stadium act to deflect vehicle attacks as well as welcome fans. In the heart of the city, this is the balance that is needed to achieve true resilience with subtlety yet strength; combining the best of engineering, design and urban planning.

Within a building, the main concern is an explosive attack – high internal stresses and forces in short bursts. Successive explosions then cause localised fatigue points and potential catastrophic failure. Designing for explosive loading can include hardening building fabric, adding concrete diaphragms to reduce building sway or installing toughened laminated glass. However, costs to achieve this may escalate to unaffordable levels. In addition, buildings risk becoming bunkers and uncomfortable working environments.

Building design to deal with explosive attacks

Civil engineers also consider diversion routes within a building for debris and shrapnel and look at the effect of shockwaves on different materials. A New York City Police Department report cites a DBT (Design Basis Threat) rating: ‘the magnitude of the blast from an explosive device that a building should be designed to withstand at a specified distance’. Analysing these effects of explosions is now becoming easier with more sophisticated dynamic modelling techniques and increased quantum computer power. The effect of explosive loading on steel plate can be seen in this video from Interesting Engineering.

A global, integrated approach

Providing the resilient buildings, that today’s modern world unfortunately requires, is increasingly being addressed by a global community of experts: civil engineers, academics, built environment planners and security professionals experts. With a requirement for innovative problem solving using the latest in simulation and modelling techniques, it’s clear that this is a true growth area looking for the best in engineering talent.

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