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Better Computing, Communication at Disaster Sites

Mechanical engineering undergraduates (l-r) Victor Correa Schneider, Trevor Owen, Julia Tsai and Dan Ferguson, and structural engineering Ph.D. student Benjamin Thompson (far right).

Sensors are everywhere - even on surfboards. Mechanical engineering undergraduates outfitted a surfboard with velocity sensors and a computer - one step toward structural engineering Ph.D. student Benjamin Thompson's quest to develop the science of surfboards. Thompson aims to discover if surfboards have an optimal flexibility - a board stiffness that makes surfing as enjoyable as possible. This work requires embedded sensors that capture the data necessary to calculate how surfboards change shape in the surf.

Thompson has engaged a team of undergrads to help with his research. The mechanical engineering undergrads outfitted a board with eight "bend sensors" that recorded the speed of the water flowing beneath the board. The faster the water moves with respect to the board, the more the sensors bend. An onboard computer saved the water velocity information and sent it to a laptop on shore in real time.

While the sensors beneath the board went unnoticed, the onboard computer in its watertight case drew attention. "What's on your board? What is that?" fellow surfers asked undergraduate Dan Ferguson. "We'd have to tell them it's a microprocessor connected to velocity sensors, and they would kind of nod and paddle away. It created a minor stir." In an interview with Wired.com, Thompson outlined upcoming surfing trials with boards outfitted "with 50-odd sensors and mechanisms, including accelerometers, strain transducers and gyroscopic instrumentation."

With all these sensors, Thompson will have a greater ability to capture what exactly happens to a surfboard when someone rides it. The sensors will be deployed on four surfboards that Thompson designed to be identical in every way except stiffness. "I'm testing them to make sure they ride properly and feel right," said Thompson. "When this is done, we'll start putting the instruments on the boards."

The surfboard project falls within a hot area of engineering research: the study of fluid-structure interactions. For Thompson, the fluid is the surf, the structure is the board, and the interaction between the two may finally unlock what it takes to make the perfect surfboard.