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NUMERICAL SIMULATION OF FLEXIBLE

ROCKFALL PROTECTION SYSTEMS
Axel Volkwein
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ABSTRACT
Today's flexible rockfall protection barriers have reached a high development stage. An ex-
tension of their maximum rockfall retaining capacity of momentary 3000 kJ requires a super-
proportional effort. Corresponding numerical simulations now enable a more efficient devel-
opment or optimization of new types due to a reduced number of expensive prototype field
tests. In addition, the use of software provides the possibility to simulate projected barriers
considering special load cases, which cannot be reproduced in field tests, as well as special
geometrical boundary conditions for individual sceneries.
The developed software FARO combines new approaches in simulating the single barrier
components through discrete elements with main focus on the loosely connected net rings
and the suspension ropes. The falling rock is modeled as rigid body using a special contact
algorithm for the interaction with the barrier. This paper presents the numerical background
of the developed software as well as its application. The quality of the obtained results is
documented through comparisons with full-scale rockfall tests.
KEYWORDS
Rockfall, flexible protection systems, dynamic simulation, explicit finite elements
INTRODUCTION
The extensive usage of the Alps for tourism, infrastructure and residential areas results in an
increasing need of protecting the civil installations against natural hazards. The energy ca-
pacity of today’s rockfall barriers has been improved by the factor 10 in the last two decades
to 3000 kJ. However, an extension to higher energies using conventional methods requires a
lot of resources because of a high amount of prototype testing. Specially developed applica-
tion software can now be used to reduce the number of field experiments and to enable an
efficient development of new barriers and to optimize existing ones. The software was cali-
brated through quasi-static and dynamic laboratory and field experiments and was validated
through full-scale field tests.
This paper deals with so-called highly flexible rockfall protection systems (see fig. 1).
The fencelike structures consist of steel posts, which are kept in position by restraining and
lateral steel ropes. Suspension ropes are strained between the posts and span the ring nets.
The net itself consists of loosely connected rings with a diameter of 300 mm and are made of
3 mm-high-strength steel wire bent to 5 – 19 windings. Special brake elements are integrated
in the ropes to guarantee a clearly defined location of energy absorption. The described sys-

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Research Engineer, WSL Swiss Federal Institute of Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF), Flüelastr. 11,
7260 Davos-Dorf, Switzerland, Phone +41 81 4170-253, FAX +41 81 4170-110, volkwein@slf.ch
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tem acts very flexible with high deformations in the order of the barrier size. This guarantees
an extended braking time for the falling rock and therefore results in a peak-load reduction of
the involved components.

Fig. 1: Example of investigated protection barriers during rockfall event
If conventionally calculating and designing flexible barriers by hand one assumes a maxi-
mum deformation state of the barrier and distributes the energy dissipating brake elements
along the barrier. The sum of their absorbed energies then corresponds to the rockfall energy.
The loads in the remaining barrier components result from the maximum forces, which can
be transferred through the brake elements. Using this schema the load within the ring net still
stays unknown and can usually only be estimated from field experiments. Additionally, the
influence of the so-called curtain effect where the ring net collects itself along the suspension
ropes during the loading process cannot be estimated through manual methods and therefore
suitable numerical simulation methods have to be chosen.
For common steel-wire meshes previous studies have been performed with the FE-code
ABAQUS (Cazzani et al. 2002). Here, the main focus has been drawn to the dynamic behav-
ior e.g. the velocity distribution within the net. A detailed simulation of ASM
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-nets has been
established by using a specially developed Finite-Element program (Nicot 1999). Special
attention has been paid to the simulation of the sixfold imposed net rings. The quality of the
numerical performance has been estimated through quasi-static experiments. Full-scale field
experiments on an inclined slope were used to verify the simulations.
The simulations described in this paper use specially developed discrete elements for
simulating the barrier ropes and net rings considering long distance slides including friction
(Volkwein 2004). The experimental methods and data used for calibration and verification/
validation are documented in Grassl 2002.
DESCRIPTION OF THE SOFTWARE
The developed software FARO is being used by projecting engineers and must stay clear in
its concept, easily understandable and usable. Therefore, it was the aim of the project to de-

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ASM-nets are Anti-SubMarine ring nets where every net ring has 6 neighbors. This kind of ring nets has origi-
nally been used to protect harbors and ships against torpedoes.
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velop an efficient and practical simulation tool. To avoid the collection of high amounts of
later unneeded data during the simulation, the visualization i.e. the post processing comes
simultaneously to the simulation. The rather small dimensions of the models with mostly less
than 2000 nodes or elements and the CPU capabilities of today’s PCs still allow a comfort-
able performance.
In general, commercial finite element codes with special programming interfaces can be
used for this kind of application. Especially, because they already combine standard routines
in dealing with standard finite elements, time integration and contact algorithms including
comprehensive tools for pre- and post-processing. However, it was decided to develop a
completely new software. The tool is tailor-made for the actual problem and is reduced to
only the necessary parts to skip unneeded program features. Additionally, it can be adapted to
consider specialties during the construction phase. This approach guarantees an independ-
ency from commercial product. However, one must not forget, that a steady maintenance of
the software due to bug fixes and system changes is necessary.
The graphical user interface (see fig. 2) is written in Java
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. It represents an easy to use as-
sistance in designing a barrier and is portable to almost every operating system or platform.
The GUI serves as steering tool for simulation and visualization of the results. The latter is
implemented using the Javav3D-API from SUN based on the OpenGL-standard and offers a
fully featured three-dimensional analysis of the simulations. The obtained results are mainly
the actual and maximum loads of the barrier components and their remaining capacity. Addi-
tionally, information about the dynamic parameters (displacement, velocity, acceleration,
energy) of pre-defined nodes and the rock can be collected. For parameter studies observing
the influence of one or more input values on some pre-selected results, it is also possible to
run the simulation over a command line in batch mode.
Contrary to the GUI, the finite element simulation itself is programmed in C++. This
guarantees a faster computational simulation as it would be the case with Java, because a
Java program always uses only a precompiled binary code which is interpreted by an under-
lying virtual machine during runtime. As the use of JAVA for the GUI, the use of the GNU-
C++-Compiler
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again guarantees availability on almost every operating system. The clear
separation of numerical calculation and visualization also ensure a clean programming.
The modeling of the barriers takes place through an ASCII file according to a given input
syntax. This enables a completely flexible modeling of the different barrier configurations.
Pretension of single ropes during the barrier construction can also be modeled as well as the
static net sag before the rockfall event
NUMERICAL MODELING
Due to the short process time of T < 0.5 s, the non-linear element behavior of the simulated
components and the large geometrical non-linearities an explicit time integration scheme
using the central differences method with time steps of ∆t = 1..20 µs has been chosen (Bathe
2003). Three translational degrees of freedom are used for every single node. The rock addi-
tionally considers its spatial rotation. Main task for the numerical simulation is the determi-

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http://java.sun.com
4
http://gcc.gnu.org
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nation of the forces acting on the nodes for every single timestep. These are the element
forces, the contact interaction with the rock and mass related forces like self-weight and
damping.

Fig. 2: Graphical user interface of FARO during the simulation of a vertical rockfall event
into a barrier including a diagram window to monitor selected output values.
The critical value for the stability and preciseness of the simulation is the time step size,
which is reciprocally proportional to the maximum Eigen angular frequency of the system. In
general, the latter is the same as the highest Eigen angular frequency of the single elements.
For simple truss elements the maximum time step equals the time a sound wave would need
to cross the element. The used elements in this simulation are all line-shaped and therefore
the definition of the maximum time step is proportional to the length of the elements.
The rockfall barrier components, i.e. net rings, ropes, posts or brake elements, are repre-
sented each by one single discrete element connected to the neighbored elements via the
nodes. The model mass is concentrated in the nodes keeping the system’s mass and viscous
damping matrix diagonal. A boundary condition on a node in one ore more coordinate direc-
tion(s) is realized via increasing its entry in the system’s mass matrix by the factor 10
100
. This
keeps the acceleration acting on a single node numerically zero, if loaded by an element-
internal or external force.
The rock is modeled as a rigid body. Its shape is spherical according to the test specimen
used in the project experiments (Grassl 2002). The spatial rotation is handled by the use of
Euler-Parameters (Quaternions) as described in e.g. Wittenburg 1977. They always guarantee
an orthonormal rotational transformation matrix and eliminate the singularity issues associ-
ated with, e.g. Euler angles or Rodrigues parameters. The rotational terms at velocity and
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acceleration levels are kept as spatial vectors. This keeps the equations of motion in a much
simpler form.
The explicit time integration algorithm can also be used to calculate a quasi-static equi-
librium of the structure, mainly net and cable sag. Normally, static calculations are performed
using an implicit solver, but for the lack of it the explicit method is also usable. Especially if
combined with a subsequent dynamic simulation. In addition, if the static solution causes
high non-linearities the explicit solution might even be faster than the implicit one. The
quasi-static method can be achieved by using high damping coefficients to keep the mass
velocities on a low level and to avoid inertia effects.
CONTACT INTERACTION BETWEEN ROCK AND BARRIER
A contact algorithm has been developed, which prevents or controls respectively the penetra-
tion of the element nodes into the rock by applying outwards-directed forces to the contact
partners. This procedure allows a penetration of the element segments between the single
element nodes, but this is acceptable if the rock dimensions are large compared to the dis-
tance of the element nodes and therefore the element segment penetration stays small.
Fig. 3 illustrates the 2D situation of the 3D contact between a single node and the spheri-
cal rock for the time t. Their actual positions are described through x
r
and X
r
and their ve-
locities through v
r
and V
r
( V v v
r
r r
− · ∆ ) respectively. During the next timestep the forces f
r

and F
r
will be acting on the masses m and M. Due to the spherical rock shape with the radius
R the geometrical connection u
r
between node and rock equals the surface normal and there-
fore is also the direction of the additional contact force
0
u c
r
and penetration of the node oc-
curs if R u ≤
r
.

Fig. 3: Contact schema between the spherical rock and one single node (all vectorial
parameters are boldfaced)
The chosen approach calculates contact forces acting for the single time step duration ∆t. The
force size c varies between preventing a further node penetration (plastic contact, e = 0) or
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rebounding the node (elastic contact, e = 1) depending on the chosen coefficient of restitu-
tion e. The contact force for a spherical rock without friction is according to Volkwein 2004
). 1 0 ( ) 1 (
0 :
0 :
0
0
≤ ≤
1
]
1

¸



+ − −
+
· →
¹
¹
¹
;
¹
· ∆
· ∆ + ∆
∆ +
e u
t
v
e
m
f
M
F
m M
Mm
c
u v approach Plastic
E E approach Elastic
t t
Node Rock
r
o
r r
r
o
r

A Coulomb friction µ between the nodes and the rock can be stated in the input file of the
modeled barrier. The frictional force f
r,i
= µc
i
acts orthogonal to the rock surface and induces
also a moment on the rock’s center of gravity.
In general, several nodes i interact with the rock at the same time. Therefore, the single
calculated contact forces influence also themselves because the overall contact force c
Rock

acting on the rock is equal the sum of the single contact forces c
i
. The exact solution requires
the setup of an equation system with the c
i
as unknowns that are solved iteratively until all
contact forces are greater zero. However, the mass of the rock is much higher than the node
masses. Therefore, the influence of c and c
i
respectively on the rock is much lower than on
the nodes and one can resign the setup of the equation system. A comparative study has
shown, that the system energies over the time differ less than 0.03 % from the exact solution
(Volkwein 2004).
The first simulations using above algorithm showed, that the chosen contact durance for
only one single time step induces very high acceleration peaks on the rock even though those
peaks have only small influence of the movement of the rock when integrated over time. To
smooth the rock’s acceleration curve a thin numeric layer was applied around the rock’s sur-
face. The contact force is now linearly interpolated according to the fraction a node has pene-
trated the additional layer. Fig. 4 shows the influence of a 0.1 mm thick layer compared to a
fully rigid contact on the acceleration curve of the falling rock.
A
c
c
e
l
e
r
a
t
i
o
n
[
m
/
s
2
]
Time [s] Time [s]
Layer 0.1mm Without damping layer
A
c
c
e
l
e
r
a
t
i
o
n
[
m
/
s
2
]
Time [s] Time [s]
Layer 0.1mm Without damping layer

Fig. 4: Influence of a thin elastic layer aroung the rigid rock on the smoothness of the rock’s
acceleration curve.
SIMULATION OF BARRIER COMPONENTS
The barriers consist of posts, brake elements, ropes and ring nets. The posts can be simulated
using simple truss elements with a linear-elastic material behavior according to their imple-
mentation in the barrier construction and their high strength compared to the remaining bar-
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rier components. The brake elements are also modeled as trusses using a non-linear tension-
only material law, which can be composed in linear sections in the input file and was re-
trieved from quasi-static laboratory experiments. This allows an easy implementation of dif-
ferent brake systems.
Ropes
Common finite element codes model ropes by successive truss elements combined with a
tension-only material law. But this system requires much numerical effort if long-distance
slides of the net rings have to be considered. Both Grassl 2002 and Zhou et al. 2004 represent
a rope element consisting of three nodes where the middle node can slide along the rope
track. A similar system has now been used to offer all middle nodes the capability to slide on
the rope. This can be achieved by introducing the concept of the constant normal force. This
means that all rope segments have the same normal force regardless the positions of the mid-
dle nodes. Fig. 5 shows this concept and fig. 6 its application. The acting normal force N is
being calculated through the relative overall lengthening ε of the rope depending on the func-
tion f that defines the material law of the rope:
1 ) (
0 ,
− · ·


· t i
i
l
l
with f N ε ε .

Fig. 5: The rope element acts as one single spring with an overall constant normal force.

Fig. 6: Left: Principle of dynamic rope behaviour: A load on the nodes 2 and 3 in picture (a)
also strains the part 0-1. The balance of forces on nodes 2 & 3 in picture (b) induces their
inward movement to picture (c). Right: Curtain effect within the rockfall barrier.
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The friction induced during the sliding processes is considered by lowering the normal force
in the rope segments, which are shortened because of the sliding nodes. This approach can be
imagined as a brake down of the sliding process (Volkwein 2004). Usually, friction comes
along with a bending within the rope track. The normal force reduction can be defined either
through a Coulomb friction according to the transverse force for sharp deflections or a rope
friction according to the deflection angle at the sliding point if the rope is turned with a
higher bending radius.
Net rings
Main attribute of the net rings is their capability to arrange themselves according their load-
ing along the supporting ropes and within the net. This mobility has to be provided also by
suitable finite elements. Because of the lose connection of the rings among themselves and
on the ropes, a 2D model can be used to simulate a single net ring. In case that there would
be an out-of-plane load, the ring net arranges itself again for a strict plane loading.
Fig. 7 shows the discretization of the ring net and the mechanical model for a 4-node ring. It
mainly consists of two parts: two diagonal tension-only springs and one circumferential
spring. The latter connects all incidence nodes like a rope element as shown in the previous
section. The diagonal springs are characterized through the bending stiffness coefficient k
B
.
The circumferential spring builds up its resistance after reaching an overall length l
min
corre-
sponding to the spring stiffness k
t
till its maximum load N
max
. This principle enables the
simulation of all characteristic behaviors of the ring net. The parameters have been calibrated
using quasi-static experiments and have been mapped with a linear regression and a coeffi-
cient of determination R to
k
b
/ N/m = 18844 + 8479.7 n
w
with R
kb
= 0.9994
l
min
/ m = 0.9251 - 0.0019 n
w
with R
lmin
= 0.9658
k
t
/ N/m = 694218 + 42398 n
w
with R
kt
= 0.9994
N
max
/ N = 8400 n
w.
with R
Nmax
= 1.0.


Mechanical Model:
k
b
l
min
, k
t
, N
max
N
max
k
t
k
b
l
min
Deformation
Force
Mechanical Model:
k
b
l
min
, k
t
, N
max
k
b
l
min
, k
t
, N
max
N
max
k
t
k
b
l
min
Deformation
Force
N
max
k
t
k
b
l
min
Deformation
Force

Fig. 7: Discretization of ring net and qualitative mechanical behavior of single net ring: Until
completely stretched from circular to rectangular shape the ring allows high deformations but
builds up only little resistance. In the stretched state it behaves like a steel bar in tension.
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VERIFICATION OF THE SIMULATION
A full-scale test site in Walenstadt (SG), Switzerland is used to verify the results produced by
the simulation software. Here, a special research frame provides the possibility in testing
single spanned ring nets alone and suspended on ropes, which might be enhanced with brake
elements. Different measurement techniques, i.e. force measurements, acceleration sensors
and high-speed video provide the necessary data for a proper verification of the simulation.
Fig. 8 shows an experiment using a fixed net Rocco 19/3/300 together with the correspond-
ing simulation. The resulting upward acceleration and total energy of the rock with a falling
height of 3 m is shown in fig. 9. It shows a good correlation between the measured data of
the experiment and the simulation for both over time and in the size. Also the simulated plas-
tic energy absorption of the ring net, which is equal to the difference between start and final
rock energy level, corresponds to the real experiment. However, the unloading sequence at
T = 0.2 s goes on more slowly in the simulation compared to the experiment The net ring
unloading behavior might therefore still be optimizable.

Fig. 8: Research frame for rockfall nets over time with the according simulation.

Experiment R1,2,3S1
Simulation
Time / s
Acceleration m/s
2


Experiment R1,2,3S1
Simulation
Time / s
Energy / J

Fig. 9: Upward acceleration and energy curve of a stopped 800 kg rockfall from 3 m height
into a fixed ring net Rocco 19/3/300.
Fig. 10 shows the ring net suspended on ropes with integrated brake elements. A geometri-
cally well comparable behavior of the rope net interaction can clearly be observed. The dif-
ferent colors in the simulation picture stand for different degrees of utilization of the single
barrier components. In fig. 11 the rope forces for a rope-suspended ring net are compared
between experiment and simulation. It shows that the simulated system in general builds up
its resistance against the rock later than the original system. However, one of the most inter-
esting results namely the maximum forces within the ropes have been determined well
enough for a proper design of the barrier components.
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Fig 10: Deformations of ring net suspended on ropes with integrated brake elements.
Experiment h = 3 m
Experiment h = 16 m
Simulation h = 3 m
Simulation h = 16 m
Time / s
Rope forces / N

Fig 11: Measured and simulated rope forces for arope-supended ring net.
CONCLUSIONS
A tool has been presented to simulate flexible rockfall protection fences. It combines meth-
ods to efficiently map the relevant processes. Main focus is hereby turned to the interaction
between rock and barrier and the modeling of the single barrier components. The software
provides a completely new way in designing such protective measures. Up to now, this has
been done only through empirical methods. The application assists the practical engineer
especially in efficiently solving actual problems. The software is able to answer questions,
which can not be answered with conventional methods or experiments, e.g. high speed rock-
fall events with velocities of up to 245 km/h. Easy to use parameter studies will document the
optimization process for new barriers, e.g. the barrier performance depending on the barrier
height.
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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The author wishes to acknowledge the Swiss Federal Commission for Technology and Inno-
vation (CTI), Berne, which provided partial financial support for this work. Industrial partner
is the Swiss company Fatzer AG Geobrugg Protection Systems, Romanshorn with high tech-
nical engagement and financial support in this research project.
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