Engineering and Geotechnical Capability

BGS Science Facilities

BGS is a world leader in visualising the subsurface, which, combined with parameterised ground models, provides a platform for characterising and quantifying the ground’s behaviour. We apply this understanding to our interactions with the subsurface to support sustainable energy, environmental and ground engineering activities. Realising the natural capital provided by the ground in these areas requires continued sampling and measurement of the subsurface and the Engineering and Geotechnical Capability (EGC) was established with this in mind.

EGC provides the infrastructure underpinning field and laboratory R&D, and the long-term management of geophysical and geotechnical property data at BGS. Figure 1 shows the structure of the EGC.

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Figure 1  Engineering and Geotechnical Capability internal structure and linkages. BGS © UKRI.

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Figure 1 also shows the data pathways through the EGC. As well as the data generated by our research programme, we also ingest third-party data from UK site investigations. The laboratory and field data generated by our research supports the BGS’s strategic programme for multiscalar ground model visualisation and attribution.

We specialise in the analysis, interpretation and problem solving integral to research and development. We offer bespoke solutions to BGS core science and commissioned research programmes, providing a single facility to integrated service support. Our services include:

  • innovative research and development solutions for field and laboratory activities and apparatus
  • in situ field measurement, sampling and laboratory testing of geological materials
  • collation and digitisation of UK site investigation data
  • maintenance of the National Geotechnical Properties Database
  • data analysis to support the parameterisation of the National Geological Model
  • development of geotechnical and geophysical property relationships to support and quantify geophysical monitoring activities
  • geophysical monitoring activities for ground visualisation, natural and engineered asset condition and performance indices
  • ground characterisation of natural and engineered ground including landslide observatories, geotechnical earthworks and seismic amplification.

Engineering and Geotechnical Capability ground characterisationFigure 2: High-resolution ground characterisation for engineering applications. BGS © UKRI.


We don’t simply make measurements of the ground: we integrate these measurements into coherent ground models at a scale that is fit-for-purpose for a range ground engineering applications.

Figure 2 shows the application of high-resolution resistivity and non-invasive shear-wave velocity-mapping methods to image an infilled meander channel in alluvium on the River Trent floodplain.

The highlighted 2D section runs parallel to the current West Coast Rail main line and was formerly chosen as the route for the HS2 rail line. Fine soft soils infilling the meander pose potential challenges to construction due to consolidation affecting the bearing capacity and may also amplify train-induced ground vibrations. (The HS2 route has since been re-designated further to the north-west.)

Understanding ground behaviour is core to understanding the performance of critical UK infrastructure and how it changes with time. Key hydrogeological, geophysical and geotechnical properties control ground behaviour in excavations, foundations, tunnels and engineered fill.

For over 20 years, our research has generated a wealth of data and information on the engineering performance of the geological formations that are strategically important to UK infrastructure and development.  This research undertaking has led to the characterisation of major bedrock and superficial formations in terms of their engineering, which can be accessed via our information products, including:

Navigate to our publications and case studies section to download case studies relating to:

  • historical development of geophysics in the UK
  • impact assessment of strength of ground supporting a leaking water pipe
  • system for inspecting underwater piled foundations
  • novel apparatus for soil shrinkage testing
  • anatomical imaging of aged railway embankments

Publications and case studies

This study demonstrates the use of multichannel analysis of surface waves (MASW) to measure changes in Rayleigh wave velocity relating to both the initial trench construction and subsequent simulated failures (water leaks) of a buried water pipe. The MASW field trials were undertaken in conjunction with a wider suite of geophysical monitoring techniques at a site in south-west England, within an area of clayey sandy silt.

The Rayleigh wave velocity through a soil approximately equals the shear wave velocity, which in turn is predominantly dependant on the shear modulus of the soil (G) and this can be inferred to give a measure of the relative strength of a soil. It is proposed that the time-lapse measurement of Rayleigh wave velocity may be used to monitor ongoing changes in soil strength and therefore the MASW technique could perform a significant role in monitoring the initiation or progression of any internal processes within a geotechnical asset, before they would otherwise be identified through visual inspection alone.

At present, British (BS 1377, BSI, 1990) and American (D427-04; T92-97) standards describe soil shrinkage measurements via displacements of liquid mercury in which the sample is immersed. Both methods present a significant health hazard related to the spread of the mercury vapours, leading to a ban on its use in many soils laboratories. The BGS system, called SHRINKiT, employs laser scanning, combining successive high-resolution volume and mass measurements to determine soil shrinkage limit.

Surface-wave surveying is a field geophysical technique used to assess the small-strain stiffness characteristics of railway subgrade and geotechnical assets.

The surveys captured complex structures consistent with end tipping within an aged Victorian embankment. Anatomical imaging of the asset was possible, enabling location of the stiffness contrasts between different fill materials needed to understand dynamic load performance and early identification of progressive subgrade deterioration that precedes track geometry problems.

This paper discusses the development and application of geophysical techniques from a historical UK perspective. Covering the last 50 years, this study begins in the 1960s with geophysical exploration in former African dependencies. We also show how the development of seismic surveying for hydrocarbons through the 70s and 80s is linked to our post-war motorway expansion and how the regeneration of our urban centres through the 90s and 00s provided the catalyst for geophysical methods to help characterise disturbed and contaminated ground. We take a final look at the issue of swelling urban populations and the need for very high-resolution methods to aid detection and laying of utility infrastructure within a congested cityscape.

Fossil fuel and renewable energy supplies rely upon offshore platforms constructed in the shallow seas around the UK. Injected concrete grout joins the steel substructures used in the foundations supporting these platforms on the sea bed. The foundation substructure joint comprises concrete-grout sandwiched between two steel plates. The condition of the grout deteriorates with time and can develop cracks at its interfaces with either steel substructure.

This case study describes the development of an underwater inspection system that uses ultrasound beamed onto the outer faces of the steel plates to inspect the condition of the internal grout joint.

Need more information?

Please contact Dr David Gunn for more information

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