UK blast injury research centre launched

A new £8m centre researching the effects of roadside bomb blasts hopes to produce improved body protection and vehicle design for soldiers in Afghanistan.

The Centre for Blast Injury Studies, launched yesterday at Imperial College London, aims to study and reduce the effects of injuries caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), most notably heel injuries that can need years of painful rehabilitation.

A team of engineers has already designed and built what they say is a unique test rig that simulates the impact of a human leg against a vehicle floor as a bomb explodes beneath it.

‘Through an understanding of engineering and the interaction of forces and deformations with the human body you can deflect that injury to another part of the human body,’ said the centre’s director, Prof Anthony Bull.

The research could lead to changes in the design of vehicles to do with the position of passengers and the way the vehicle deflects impacts, he said. The team is also researching new boot designs for soldiers and plans to look at new vehicle floor mats.

Other research will focus on the biological impact of blasts, such as lung injuries and the way damaged muscle tissues can become bone-like.

Colonel Jon Clasper, defence professor in trauma and orthopaedics, said serious injuries in Afghanistan were far worse than in previous conflicts because improvements in defence medical services had improved survival rates.

‘Everyone tends to talk about the number of amputees we have but actually there are patients that consider themselves worse than an amputee because they have horrific injuries to their ankles and heels and actually don’t recover as quickly,’ he said.

‘There are a quite a number of soldiers who request amputations because they see that their colleagues who have had amputations are doing far better, they’re getting back to work quickly and are not in the same amount of pain.’

Blast simulator

The Anti-vehicle Underbelly Blast Injury Simulator (AnUBIS) is a wheeled chassis carrying a pneumatically driven device that can accelerate a 40kg plate to around 25m/s to simulate the floor of a vehicle as a bomb explodes underneath it.

Multiple-sensors, high-speed video and medical imaging equipment are used to assess the damage to human leg tissue placed on the rig.

This data is used in computational models to assess the effectiveness of changing the leg’s position or using mitigation technologies.

‘We’ve been able to take CAT scans of our specimens here and they directly compare to the injuries seen in the field in Afghanistan,’ said Bull. ‘No one else has been able to do that.’

The biggest technical challenge was in getting the floor simulator to stop realistically, PhD student Nic Newell told The Engineer.

‘We use braking arms that have big springs on all sides. As the plate flies up it wedges open the arms and presses into the springs and that brings it to a stop,’ he said.

Boot design

The first project the researchers are looking at is how to redesign soldiers’ boots to transfer blast energy away from the foot towards the shin bone, which can be more easily reconstructed in surgery.

‘We’re assessing how the boots sent out to Afghanistan behave under the high strain-rate loading that you might expect,’ said Newell.

‘And then we’re using that data to understand which part of the design, materials, geometry we can change to change the injuries we see in the soldiers.’

The Royal British Legion (RBL), the armed forces charity that offers support to current and former service personnel, is providing £5m to establish the centre.

‘Long after we have withdrawn from Afghanistan there will be a legacy as a result of the injuries these people have received that organisations and charities like the Royal British Legion will have to address,’ said RBL director general Chris Simpkins.

‘If we can apply some greater level of primary care for those individuals now, and indeed prevention, then the need to apply acute care from the service charities will be reduced in the future.’