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Corps facility serves as epicenter of coastal research

Published Oct. 13, 2017

The research pier at Duck has been part of monitoring coastal storms and near-shore processes since 1977, providing for a continuous 40-year record of data for scientists worldwide.

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Since opening in 1977, the Field Research Facility at Duck, N.C., has collected data on every major storm within 150 miles. Data and research from FRF Duck has improved our understanding of near-shore processes and helped reduce risk from coastal storms.


The Coastal Amphibious Research Buggy parks in the surf zone as researchers collect sediment samples and sensor data from breaking waves. The CRAB serves a 35-foot tall mobile research platform, one of several specialty vehicles available to researchers at Duck.

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Rene Roy and Nate Miller of BirdsEyeView Aeronautics prepare to launch an unmanned aerial system during a three-week remote sensing workshop at FRF Duck. At the workshop, government, academia and industry collaborated to assess the capabilities of various unmanned aerial systems to support the Corps’ Flood Risk Management mission.

After 40 years, Field Research Facility at Duck, NC, continues to revolutionize coastal engineering

DUCK, N.C. (Oct. 13, 2017) -- Along an idyllic stretch of beach on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers keeps constant watch over the coast. For 40 years, the Field Research Facility at Duck, North Carolina, has provided the Army and the scientific community unparalleled insights on a dynamic environment.

Part of the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory, FRF Duck serves many purposes. Primarily, it provides constant observation and data on near-shore processes, with an expanding and evolving array of sensors to measure coastal storms, waves, currents, and seafloor morphology. FRF Duck also features a 1,840-foot research pier, specialized amphibious vehicles, and custom-built instrumentation that does everything from measuring waves with radar to capturing changes in water conditions across the Currituck Sound.

It is as a permanent base of operations for physical and biological studies of the coastal environment. Data is constantly collected to measure waves, currents, and seafloor morphology – especially during storms.

The facility was established in 1977 on a former U.S. Navy rocket and bombing range, providing site conditions needed for coastal engineering and observation and enabling the Corps of Engineers to maintain a continuous record of data gathered from the field.

Since the 1980s, experts have converged on FRF Duck for large, collaborative field experiments. Eventually these gatherings drew more than 100 students, faculty and researchers, transforming Duck from a sparsely-manned research outpost to a hub of the coastal science community.

“The Field Research Facility is really a gem of the Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory,” said Dr. Jane Smith, senior research scientist at ERDC in Vicksburg. “The big field experiments like SUPERDUCK and SANDYDUCK were a great opportunity to get in the field for a few weeks, collect data and develop models collaboratively. It brought the coastal research community together.”

Over her 34 years as a researcher, Smith has seen the contributions of FRF Duck make a positive impact.

“The biggest contribution is the long-term record of wave and coastal processes collected there. You can’t go to a conference without hearing researchers say ‘we used data from Duck.’ That 40-year record doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Smith said. “We also discovered shear waves at Duck, and learned a lot about natural and nature-based features: how dunes evolve, and how they protect the coasts.”

"In 2013 the FRF was reorganized to better collaborate with the coastal researchers at the Coastal Hydraulics Laboratory in Vicksburg and enhance research capabilities,” said Jeff Waters, supervisory research scientist and branch chief at FRF Duck. “Another goal of the reorganization was to develop tools and technology built upon the Corps’ long term investment at Duck.”

The team at Duck grew accordingly, and now is home to a larger team of 24 research scientists, engineers and support staff. One of the first efforts after reorganization was to make the wealth of knowledge at Duck more accessible to researchers worldwide.

Knowledge Management

With 40 years’ worth of varying types of data, one of the first challenges the team at Duck took on after reorganizing was the Field Research Facility’s Data Integration Framework.

“We decided early on we wanted to improve access to data,” said Michael Forte, research physical scientist at FRF Duck. “We’ve been collecting all kinds of data sets here – wave, wind, currents, tide, beach morphology, radar, LIDAR – so over the years you can imagine data formats change, with different quality assurance, quality controls, and storage types.”

The FRF team, including a retired member, dug into a record reaching back to when magnetic tape roamed the earth and ensured everything was in a consistent format with the right quality control and metadata to meet international standards. Standards were also established ensure new data is collected in the same format and is readily available through a THREDDS data server.

For geospatial data, there is a separate but similar process on an ARC server in partnership with the Mobile District.

“There’s a lot of power in the way users can come in and access data in a variety of program language to interact with the data on the server without pulling it to their machine,” said Forte.

“When you’re doing research, a majority of the time is often spent gathering the data, doing quality assurance and quality control, then getting that data into the format you need to do your analysis. Now with this new system, the data is in a central location with metadata.”

The metadata provides context to researchers, supplying details that make data discovery easier and faster. The Data Integration Framework is a model of how Knowledge Management serves scientists and engineers around the world. It also paved the way for the Coastal Model Test Bed.

Smarter Models

Numerical models developed at ERDC’s Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory are used by engineers, scientists, and coastal planners in the Corps, as well as public and private agencies to simulate complex scenarios at a reasonable cost. The Coastal Model Test Bed has been developed to evaluate and refine these models using Duck’s historic record and ongoing data collection.

“Typically when researchers are doing numerical models, they have limited data to work with – sometimes just two or three storms. They’ll use one storm to set the model up and another to validate it,” said Waters. “What we’re doing here now is running models continuously and checking them against our expanded data observation network, which allows us to look at how the model operates and look for what improvements can be made.”

The test bed accomplishes a side-by-side, real-time comparison of model outputs and real-world data, allowing researchers to improve the accuracy of models as well as better understand the sensitivity to different tunable parameters, and reduce uncertainty.

“The role of the test bed is to translate the data we collect here into the input format the model expects,” said Dr. Spicer Bak, a research physical scientist running the Coastal Model Test Bed.

“We run the model, archive the data, plot out some of the live results and perform analysis.” The researchers at FRF Duck plan to publish a paper on their initial results later this year.

Currently the test bed is focused on wave modeling, with an aim to eventually integrating modeling beach morphology.

“The focus is to isolate pieces and see how the model is responding to all the components,” said Bak. “A lot of these models are built one on another. Everything is in a way intertwined.”

Shore “Birds"

As decades of observation at Duck provide greater understanding of the process, researchers are still exploring new ways to gather and apply data.

Remote sensing research at Duck started as a military mission, supporting logistics-over-the-shore and similar missions, but like much of the research and development at ERDC, researchers quickly recognized an opportunity to leverage this technology to reduce risk from coastal storms.

“The focus of my research has always been to better understand what happens during storms. Coastal storms are when some of the largest changes to our coast happen,” said Dr. Kate Brodie, research oceanographer at FRF Duck. “In order to make observations during storms, you’re not going to be in a boat in the surf zone. If you put a sensor on the seafloor, it’s a 50-50 chance it will be there after the storm to get your data back. The best way to be able to make these measurements during storms is to develop remote sensing tech that allow you to remotely observe what’s happening on the beach and in the surf zone.”

Brodie and her fellow researchers are also developing new applications of UAS-based technology to transition existing tower-based technology out of the research world and into operational engineering. Small UAS allow coastal managers and districts to simulate the view from the FRF Duck’s 40-meter fire tower – from which much of the nearshore remote sensing community has developed their algorithms – without needing new infrastructure.

As part of remote sensing, FRF Duck recently hosted a three-week collaborative field experiment evaluating how UAS technology can be used to improve the Corps’ Flood Risk Management actions. During the experiment, ERDC labs worked with USGS, Naval Research Laboratory, National Geospatial Agency and industry to collect data and compare and contrast systems. The participants were able to share data and assess the capabilities of systems already in use by researchers and engineers.

Brodie and her teammates are also using terrestrial LIDAR scanners. This allows researchers to map around 40 kilometers of beach topography in a few hours, measure inundation and dune erosion during Hurricanes and nor’easters, as well as get 3-D imagery of breaking waves across the surf zone, increasing the spatial resolution of wave data by 2-to-3 orders of magnitude, Brodie said.

Catching Waves

Continuing the coastal discovery at Duck, researchers are working on ways to measure suspended sediment in the surf zone using a combination of optical and acoustic scatter sensors and samples taken from waves as they break.

They’re able to do this thanks to the Coastal Research Amphibious Buggy, an observation and control platform mounted on a 35-foot tall wheeled tripod that provides a stable research platform in the surf.

When Patrick Dickhudt, research oceanographer at FRF Duck, was first starting the experiment, he sought advice from peers who had worked in the surf zone. The response he got was not particularly encouraging: ‘we tried a few times, but it’s too hard, so we gave up.’

"One of my areas of expertise is making these types of measurements, so hearing that was sort of a challenge to me,” Dickhudt said. “So far it’s been pretty encouraging.”

Looking Forward

Research oceanographer Kent Hathaway arrived at FRF Duck in 1985 as a student intern. The facility was relatively new, with computing resources limited to what he summarized as “basically a couple teletype machines,” and a comparatively small amount of sensors and gages.

Among his first duties was troubleshooting code for the first directional wave analysis program. The reputation FRF Duck has established over time as a world-class facility isn’t driven by data, though, according to Hathaway.

"What’s made us so popular is not just our amphibious vehicles and logistical capability. It’s our staff. It’s our team effort out here,” he said, citing the Operations team as example. “The folks in our machine shop are amazing. A researcher can bring them a job and say ‘I need this delicate gage mounted in this exact spot.’ The operations team will come back with a plan and work it out.”

When he arrived, Hathaway assumed he’d be a short-timer at Duck. More than 30 years later, Hathaway still looks forward to what’s next.

“If its coastal research, this is one of the first places people are going to look to. They know they can show up and we’ll make it happen,” Hathaway said. “We’ve got a really good crew. It’s exciting to see where we go in the future.”

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