[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 July 2007, 00:00 GMT 01:00 UK
How is a controlled explosion carried out?
The Magazine answers...

Car outside mosque in Glasgow
The car boot is targeted first
Police have been carrying out "controlled explosions" on suspicious vehicles. What does that mean?

An explosion would seem, by nature, to be uncontrolled.

But in the past few days officers have carried out several "controlled explosions" in the investigation into the failed car bombings in Glasgow and London.

It was also a method used two years ago on a car left by the 7 July bombers in Luton. The vehicle had a rucksack filled with explosives and the police subjected it to two controlled explosions.

So what happens? After suspicions are raised that a vehicle may contain explosives, a cordon will be placed around the car and all members of the public moved outside it.

Clear the area
Safely gain access to the vehicle
Use a robot and a small charge to destroy the initiating circuit and detonator

On arrival, bomb squad officers will assess the situation. Uppermost in their minds will be how to recover the vehicle intact, says former Met Police commander Bob Milton, with 25 years of counter-terrorism experience.

"The aim is to recover the explosives device intact and get as much [evidence] out of it."

First, the inside of the car must be accessed. Opening the boot by hand would be dangerous because of a potential booby trap, so a robot is used to minimise the risk to the bomb disposal officers, says Sidney Alford, an explosives expert.

Question Mark - from original architect's doodle design for BBC TV Centre
A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines
The robot - for years a familiar sight on the streets of Northern Ireland - may be equipped with a small gun to fire at the vehicle, to open the boot or smash a window. Or it could place a small, preliminary explosive charge on to the boot, at the end of a detonation cord.

If the car has been parked for a few days and presents a very low risk, the explosives could be placed on the vehicle by hand.

Once the vehicle has been accessed, officers prepare for the main controlled explosion. The robot can use its camera to give experts standing at a distance a sight of what is inside.

Bomb disposal experts working in Glasgow
The robot has a camera and a gun
If there is no device inside the vehicle then the matter has been successfully resolved. But if there is then the question is how to disable or "disrupt" it with a targeted controlled explosion.

"The British approach is almost always to try to get the initiating mechanism [eg a mobile phone] and disable it," says Mr Alford.

A policy used in Iraq is to block all mobile phone signals in the immediate area to prevent such devices being detonated remotely.

What the controlled explosion does is remove the initiating circuit and the detonator, says Hans Michels, a professor of safety engineering.

If the main charge goes off then the car would be destroyed
Dr Hans Michels

"If you have a device that is completely assembled and ready to go, it has an initiating circuit, either electrical or mechanical, which gives a high temperature or shock to set off the detonator and the detonator charge will set off the main charge."

A screen such as a heavy steel plate is placed between the initiator and the main charge, to minimise the damage, says Dr Michels.

A successful controlled explosion will leave the main charge intact and blow only the sensitive part of the device away.

The whole exercise can be carried out by the robot, which can also shoot the detonator and disrupt the device that way. That would still be classed as a controlled explosion.

Graphic showing police cordon, bomb disposal robot and suspect car
1. A police cordon is placed around the area
2. The robot can take pictures, place charges or shoot
3. The car boot is targeted first and can be blown open
4. Windows are smashed to see inside. If there is a device seen then a small charge is used to destroy the detonator but keep the main charge intact

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific