Contributions to Science & Engineering

Since its formation, the cornerstone of the FRF’s contribution to coastal research has been its long-term measurement and data collection program, that stretches back to 1977 and make the property the best studied beach in the world. The continuous record of wave, water levels, currents, beach topography, and nearshore water depths is the longest record in the world. The observation technologies have evolved through time and many state-of-the-art coastal instruments have been deployed and evaluated here using the FRF’s baseline data for comparison.

The facility is especially well known for hosting several of the large collaborative field experiments that shaped our early coastal engineering and science knowledge advancements.  These large field experiments have taken place since the early 1980s (e.g. SUPERDUCK in 1986 or SANDYDUCK in 1997) and have brought together researchers from across government (investments from USACE, USGS, ONR, etc.), academia, and the globe to advance the state of coastal processes knowledge. In addition to contributing novel experimental results and coastal processes knowledge, these initiatives have provided coastal scientists and engineers with one-of-a-kind opportunities to actively share and implement ideas face-to-face, fostering collaboration, community, and scientific discovery. The facility has acted as a critical part of many different graduate students’ research studies and is frequented by field trips from nearby universities, helping to launch the careers of tomorrow’s coastal engineers, scientists, and managers.

Today’s collection of equipment showcases the diversity of coastal infrastructure that FRF staff have utilized, ranging from the specially designed Coastal Research Amphibious Buggy (CRAB) to the video observation tower and directional wave arrays that continually monitoring the shoreline and surf zone. Today, the FRF continues to develop observation technology that improves our ability to measure coastal processes and morphology response. The variety of applications and challenges that this research has demanded of FRF staff have expanded the logistical experience and expertise of its staff in conducting research and development in the surf-zone.  FRF staff pride themselves in being able to deploy instruments in precise locations and to design mounts in a way that ensures the instruments are recoverable and stable. 

Between theses major experiments and the wide variety of the FRF’s other research activities, the FRF has played a significant role in advancing nearshore science. The broad variety of long-term monitoring and field experiments have allowed the scientific community to gain significant insight many different aspects of coastal phenomena. Open access to the FRF’s collection of datasets allows for many different uses and applications, expanding the study and use of the data far beyond its original collectors. Research by USACE staff, associated researchers, or engineers and scientists citing FRF data have covered topics ranging from sediment transport to the discovery of shear waves. As numerical models continue to grow in scale and scope, the FRF’s mission remains as critical as ever to underscoring coastal concepts and laying a foundation for model assessment.

These research successes all come with the goal of improving the approaches and technology employed by USACE as it tackles America’s different management challenges. FRF is an essentially proving ground for the instrumentation and software that different USACE districts go on to rely on. The FRF continues to evolve with changing technology and demands and its staff will continue to work hard to provide value to the nation in the years to come.

This history section has been principally based on "The Corps of Engineers' Field Research Facility: More Than Two Decades of Coastal Research" by William A. Birkemeier and K.Todd Holland, which contains more details and references for those who would like to learn more about the FRF’s history.




In the 1960s, the U.S. government recognized that very little was known about coastal processes, particularly during coastal storms. The harsh dynamics of the surf zone made it difficult to deploy instruments and collect robust data. Scientists and engineers were often limited to learning about surf zone processes by wading into the waves themselves, relying on amphibious military craft, or observing the coastal environment from less than ideal structures (e.g. fishing piers). This lack of accurate collection of field data and the corresponding understanding of coastal phenomena prevented the proper advancement of the field of coastal engineering.

In 1963, having experienced some of these field collection setbacks himself, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Coastal Engineering Research Center’s (CERC) Rudolph Savage proposed the idea of the Field Research Facility (FRF) to better monitor and observe the surf zone and nearshore ocean. Fourteen years later, this proposal became reality when the FRF was established in 1977 in Duck, NC to support the Nation’s coastal engineering research requirements. The FRF property had been formerly used as the Navy’s Duck rocket and bombing practice range for pilots flying in from bases such as Virginia Beach’s Ocean Naval Air Station (Figure 1). This location was selected from a range of locations up and down the U.S. East Coast following consideration of a wide variety of criteria, especially those needed for building an effective research pier. These factors included the control of the surrounding area (non-Residential), exposure to representative wave and storm conditions, a seafloor free of wave-altering features (e.g. underwater canyons, channels), the presence of natural dunes and a straight coastline, an adjacent estuary, acceptable tidal range, acceptable nearshore slope, and connection to a commercial power and communication grids.

 With these considerations in mind, the FRF was developed to complement CERC’s (now merged with the Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory (CHL)) modeling capacities by providing access to: a rigid-platform that extended across the dunes, beach and through the surf-zone to 20 feet of water depth in order to: measure waves, currents, and seafloor morphology (especially during storms); serve as a permanent base of operations for physical/biological studies of the coastal environment; provide field experience and guide design practices; and allow for assessment of new coastal instruments.

Once the land had been acquired, construction began on the 1,840 ft research pier in 1976 (Figure 2) and finished a year later. At one time the longest pier in the country, the research pier in Duck is still the most recognizable pier in the field of coastal science and engineering. By the time the main building was completed and the facility was officially dedicated by Congressman Walter Jones, Sr. in 1980, a new era of nearshore research and discovery was officially underway.

Figure 1. Photo from the former “Navy Duck Target Rocket Range” on the Field Research Facility Property

Figure 2. Aerial Photo of the FRF Property at the initiation of pier construction in 1976.