Surfing With Actual Surf Boards


by Tim Moran

I've never surfed. In the ocean waves, that is. We've all surfed the Web, of course, although I've never quite figured out exactly how clicking on links to various sites around the vast Internet has any connection to real surfing. I suppose it's just a variant of "channel surfing," which has a Wikipedia entry, whereas, curiously, "Web surfing" does not.

Anyway, a recent story out of UC San Diego, "A Surfboard Gets an Onboard Computer," makes a real-life connection between actual surfing and computing. According to a recent release: "University of California, San Diego, mechanical engineering undergraduates outfitted a surfboard with a computer and accompanying sensors" to record "the speed of the water flowing beneath the board. While the students surfed, the onboard computer sent water velocity information to a laptop on shore in real time."

And why would one do this, you might ask? Well, the ostensible reason is that it is part of engineering student "Benjamin Thompson's quest to discover if surfboards have an optimal flexibility - a board stiffness that makes surfing as enjoyable as possible." This structural engineering Ph.D. student is studying the fluid-structure interaction between surfboards and waves. Getting the computer to hang ten was no easy task: "The students dug trenches into the board's foam and ran wires connecting the sensors to the onboard computer. From this computer, the data travels via a wireless channel to a laptop on land...The onboard computer also saves the data on a memory card."

Another reason for the research, however, is quite clear: getting to surf on the school's dime and on school time. " 'We were stoked to get good data and to be surfing for school,' said Dan Ferguson, one of the two mechanical engineering undergraduates who surfed while the onboard computer captured water velocity information and transmitted it back to land." Stoked, indeed. They seem to have at least one of their professors fooled, though: "The surfboard project falls within a hot area of engineering research: the study of fluid-structure interactions. According to UC San Diego structural engineering professor Qiang Zhu, the study of fluid-structure interaction is important due to the large number of applications in mechanical, civil, aerospace and biological engineering."

Maybe so, but another member of the surfing-computing team, Julia Tsai, gave it all away at the public presentation of the research: "I thought the coolest part was being able to test our board, going out to the beach to test it, while everyone else had to stay downstairs in the lab." Maybe if you put your mind to it, you can figure out a way to convince the CEO that there's a crying need to test out CRM or ERP from a golf cart.