Duck, N.C., (February 18, 2020) -- Along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in the small coastal town of Duck, the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Field Research Facility has supported the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ coastal engineering mission for more than 40 years.
Founded in 1977, the FRF has maintained a comprehensive, long-term monitoring program of the coastal ocean, including waves, tides, currents, local meteorology and the associated beach response. As such, it has become an internationally recognized observatory and premier location for conducting complex and comprehensive nearshore research and engineering studies.
“The FRF is predominantly a coastal observation facility,” said Dr. Jeff Waters, chief of the Coastal Observation and Analysis Branch located at the FRF. “We have the longest continuous operating record of waves in the world and the longest continuing beach profile data set in the world.”
The facility itself consists of a 1,840-foot steel and concrete pier, a main office, several field support buildings and a 140-foot observation tower as well as specialized vehicles such as the Coastal Research Amphibious Buggy and the Lighter Amphibious Resupply Cargo vehicle. These capabilities have led to many multi-agency, multi-investor collaborations resulting in Duck beach becoming the best-studied beach in the world.
With so much data collected, the storing and accessibility of that information became increasingly important to the mission of the FRF.
“We developed the FRF data integration framework,” said Waters. “We’ve got all of our data – all 40 years’ worth of data – into a common framework where it’s accessible instantaneously.”
“We have a really nice portal that anyone in the world can enter, and with three clicks you can generate a half dozen plots on a wave gauge, or you can look at beach profiles and do all sorts of manipulations,” he said. “It was a major investment.”
Part of the ERDC’s Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory, the FRF was reorganized in 2013 as its own separate branch. “Since that time ⸺ in addition to increasing our observational capabilities here at the facility by adding new gauges and new types of gauges ⸺ we’ve also tried to develop tools and technologies that, in the civil works arena, coastal engineers can use to collect surrogate data, and for the warfighter, tools that they can use for surfzone trafficability,” said Waters.
“A lot of that work has been focused on using remote sensing methods ⸺ photogrammetry, lidar and radar ⸺ to look at nearshore hydrodynamic processes and the resultant change in the morphology, or shape of the beach,” he said.
Researchers at the FRF are currently focusing on taking the tools they use to collect data and exporting that technology in the form of remote sensing tools that will allow others to gather similar data sets at other locations.
“With mini-Argus and unmanned aircraft systems ⸺ and with some of the radar work we’re doing ⸺ we’re hoping to be able to give districts the ability to be able to collect meaningful data in a cost-effective manner,” said Waters.
“We’re working to essentially make these fully integrated ⸺ I use the phrase ‘plug and play’,” he said. “There’s a lot of processing involved in collecting the data, rectifying the data and then extracting the types of information that we want from the data ⸺ a lot of steps. We’re trying to automate all that processing, so that a district engineer doesn’t have to spend time doing any. It’s plug and play. Once a system’s installed, they will be able to get the information they need directly from the output.”
Since its inception, non-Corps use of the facility and its data has always been encouraged, allowing the site to serve as a center for cooperative experiments where resources, such as labor and instruments, are pooled to investigate complex coastal processes.
That philosophy still applies today as many joint projects and programs, such as the During Nearshore Event Experiment, are currently conducted on the site. DUNEX, a U.S. Coastal Research Program effort, is a multi-organization collaborative community experiment to study nearshore coastal processes during coastal storms. The multi-phase effort began with a pilot study in September 2019 to be followed by the full experiment starting in fall 2020 and extending into winter 2021. The FRF serves as a central location for the research.
As the facility continues to operate as a community hub for all federal agencies and academia performing nearshore processes research, new capabilities and advancements have opened the door to a wealth of opportunities.
“We now have the capability of collecting enough data here that we could do some basic research on wave physics and on sediment transport ⸺ and I think that that’s an area that could be identified in the future for our research efforts,” said Waters. “And then, again, to continue to be able to export what we learn here in the form of remote sensing tools that will allow our districts to be able to gather data that they cannot gather now.”