When building collapse simulation meets social science

Today I want to talk about what is—in my opinion—some of the most interesting structural engineering research currently underway anywhere.

Eltawil progressive collapse

Sherif El-Tawil, professor at the University of Michigan, is a world leader in progressive collapse simulation. In addition to having won a slew of awards, he is editor-in-chief of the ASCE Journal of Structural Engineering, arguably the top journal in the field. I was able to attend a seminar lecture given by Dr. El-Tawil several months ago and I was blown away by what he demonstrated. Frankly, I thought it could be reworked into a TED talk.

Progressive collapse modeling involves high-resolution simulation of structures subjected to collapse-inducing events, perhaps an earthquake or a terrorist bomb blast. Running on massive supercomputers, this is the same technology behind many animations you have seen in the popular media of the World Trade Center or the Murrah Federal Building (Oklahoma City bombing) collapses.

What is so fascinating with El-Tawil’s work is that he is partnering with social scientists to develop evacuation/egress models that can be coupled with progressive collapse simulation. Great. So what does that mean?

Imagine a building structure with a network of people (agents), each with their own personality (AI)—all stochastically distributed. When an alarm goes off or vibrations are felt in the structure, panic ensues and people begin trying to evacuate. Egress models can be employed here to estimate, at the time of collapse, the locations of people throughout the structure.

Coupling the distribution of agents from the egress model with the progressive collapse simulation opens the door to begin predicting the most likely locations of survivors. Not surprisingly, most post-collapse survivors are found in voids in the rubble. The collapse simulation aims to identify these voids and correlate them with the predicted locations of people based on the building occupancy model. Virtual reality can be used to explore these piles of rubble.

I found a video of a lecture by El-Tawil that demonstrates some of their progress. The video is about an hour long and well worth it if you are interested, but I have labeled a few minute markers for several key points in the talk:

This type of research is a great example of challenging and fascinating work aimed at addressing the human condition. No doubt, it’s great to develop an accurate simulation strategy, but the point here is ultimately preventing loss of human life.

You can find more information and videos via Dr. El-Tawil’s research website or by browsing his papers on Google Scholar