JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Here’s an engineering project for you: Design a vehicle that can venture into the surf under diesel power, that can be controlled from the beach as it gathers data underwater while traversing an uneven, shifting bottom — all while risking getting pounded to smithereens by powerful breaking waves.

That’s just the project that a University of North Florida professor and his students are putting together in an engineering lab at the school: a tripod with sturdy tracks from an all-terrain vehicle, one set of tracks in the front and two sets in the back spaced widely apart.

Looming overhead in the lab, it’s big: 23 feet long, 16 feet wide, mostly aluminum, with some stainless steel. And on top of that will be a 20-foot tall mast, or snorkel, so the vehicle can work in water that’s 20 to 25 feet deep.

They call it the surf rover.

“I wanted to come up with a better name,” said Bill Dally, an associate professor of civil and coastal engineering, “but I think it’s stuck.”

It’s something Dally has been dreaming of for 30 years, ever since he was a student who ventured into pounding surf to take measurements. Surely, he thought, there had to be a better way of getting this information.

It started becoming a reality when the National Science Foundation got interested in the device, giving the project a $515,000 grant to get it going.

Since then, 88 students have worked with Dally on the surf rover, which he says probably is a year away from testing.

The surf rover will be a multipurpose vehicle on which researchers can strap payloads consisting of any number of measuring devices or cameras.

“It’s sort of a workhorse vehicle for any type of scientific investigation in the surf zone,” Dally said. “I think we know more about the surface of Mars than we do the surf zone.”

The possible uses are many. For example, the Navy is interested in it for checking out the sea floor before driving pilings for quickly assembled expeditionary piers for landings or rescues; one of Dally’s grad students, Will Fletcher, is a lieutenant in the Navy, which sent him to UNF to work on the project.

The surf rover could be used for nearshore surveying during a storm, to see in real time how a beach erodes; he said scientists don’t really have firsthand knowledge of what is happening to sandbars during storms. Or it could be used for inspections of jetties and beach renourishment projects.

“Once it’s working, people are going to find new and inventive ways to use it,” said Patrick Cooper, a graduate student and Navy vet.

People have tried to design similar vehicles, Dally said, but have been thwarted by the difficulties involved. In a nutshell, you have to figure out how to power it, how to steer it, how to control it and how to build it to stand up to punishing waves — easy questions but tough, complicated answers.

He’s tried it before: In the early 1990s he built a version of the rover with an electric motor and a long extension cord. That wasn’t really practical though, he decided.

A key component for the new-generation rover is its 20-foot mast, which will function as a snorkel for its 40-horsepower marine diesel engine, for both air intake and exhaust. The mast will also carry positioning and radio-control devices.

It’s no simple mast though: It’ll take a beating in the surf, and will be too unwieldy to maneuver though the water unless the engineers can come up with some sort of fairing (a current project) to reduce drag.

And though the surf rover is big, it’s designed so that its rear section folds in half, enabling it to be portable enough to fit on a flatbed trailer — and to eventually get it out through the garage doors at the UNF lab.

When the day comes to get it in the water for the first time, Dally said, they’ll likely head south for clearer water, and he’ll scuba dive alongside the rover as it takes its first ocean journey. That will be a thrill, he says, watching this dreamed-of vehicle created by scratch in a college lab in Jacksonville.

“You’re building something that’s never been built before,” he said. “There’s nothing like this anywhere in the world.”


Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com