Logo: University of Southern California

Viterbi Undergrads Make Waves

Fab lab helps EE and ME students collaborate on long creative rides
Eric Mankin
May 08, 2008 — "I want to hire all of them."
The speaker was Mike Olson of Quiksilver, the giant maker of recreational clothing and equipment including snowboards (Olson's specialty in his Washington State factory and research facility) and surfboards (the subject of a Viterbi student presentation that Olson had flown into town to see.)

FabLab router at work on board
The students, 16 of them formed four teams of four each. Each team delivered presentations on their final "Captstone" projects for a class given by Ed Maby, professor of electrical engineering practice and Adam Fincham, research associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering.

The class was cross disciplinary, combining electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. The assignment consisted of two words, pronounced by the teachers at the first class meeting; "Smart Surfboards."  The teams were given three weeks to develop a concept, then $700 to finish their projects during the rest of the semester.

The course started in electrical engineering and then Fincham asked for volunteers from mechanical engineering so that the students were split almost evenly between those two engineering disciplines. A spare slot was filled by an MBA candidate, who was also a surfer, from the Marshall School of Business who’d heard about it.

The new Viterbi School Undergraduate Fabrication Laboratory (Fab Lab), filled with up-to-date industrial equipment, was a key resource for the class, Maby said: “It made some of the student design work possible.  Having a project that could use the large router table in the fab-lab is one of the major reasons why we offered the course with the surfboard theme.”
From left: seated: Quiksilver's Ryan Hollis and Milke Olson; standing Marv Stone and  Ed Maby

Olson and his five fellow panelists, including Quiksilver colleague V.P. for business development Ryan Hollis, representatives from LJ Engineering and Tech Coast Angels venture capital, Orange County Register surf reporter Shawn Price watched the four half-hour presentations in a lively session sparked by the energetic chairing of Marv Stone, a retired TRW aerospace engineer.

Though all filled a definition of “smart,” the projects were utterly different in focus and thought, and all ingenious and thought provoking.

In no particular order:

Jack Lynch (inflated) and Eric Bookland
The Wireless Lifejacket was a project that had a personal motivation for the team of Aaron Fujino (ME), Steve Lizcano (EE), Jack Lynch (EE) and Eric Bookland (ME).  Surfers can die when they hit their heads either on their boards or a reef and are trapped underwater. As long as they remain tethered to their board leashes, their boards, upright in “tombstone” position, can guide rescuers.

But if the leash is broken, Bookland told his listeners, rescuers are helpless in acres of angry churning water. This was how a world-class Tahitian surfer died in Hawaii, while Bookland was present.  The solution presented by the team was a special lifejacket with a wireless link (in the team’s example, an adapted garage door opener) to a small sender on the tail of the board.

If the vest unit failed to respond to pulses after a certain length of time, a signal triggers the inflation of the vest from an enclosed
TEAM MEMS: Emilio Vasquez, Russell Duan, Ben Jennings, and Matt Eves
C02 cartridge, bringing up the unconscious surfer back up to the surface. Under questioning from the panel, the students agreed that stringent controls were needed so that the vest would not inflate by mistake.

The Simple Mems-Actuated Rotating Tailfin (SMART) surfboard created by Russell Duan (EE), Emilio Vasquez (EE), Ben Jennings (ME) and Matt Eves (ME) is an effort to give longboard riders more control by adding a steerable fin.

The inspiration came out of conversations with boarders.  Longboards, the original surfboard design, are relative easy to ride, but not as maneuverable as shorter ones. 

A servomotor moves the fin to the left or the right, the direction controlled by positioning of the rider as picked up by a built-in gyro – when the rider leaned left, the fin steered left.

The fin action was smooth and the control system feasible, the panel thought – but the design wasn’t waterproof and hadn’t been tried. The team had done some modeling of aided steering, and was looking forward to moving on to testing it in the water.

Recyclable! Kimberly Popp, Daisuke (Dice-K) Yamagisawa, Hong-Chi Yu, and Simon Nielsen (photo: Adam Fincham}
The Sustainable Surfboard project team, consisting of Simon Nielsen (ME), Kimberly Popp (ME), Daisuke (Dice-K) Yamagisawa (MBA); and Hong-Chi Yu (EE) began with environmental and marketing issues. First, surfboards are now made from unrecyclable foam blanks; and the group wanted to find an alternative. Second, surfers questioned in a survey mentioned a series of things that would improve their time in the water, including a source of water, a place to store (and even use) electronics (including car keys), a pad to cushion ribs, a clock (watches can be uncomfortable while paddling) plus safety. 

For the first, sustainability concern, the group built a surfboard of completely novel design. Originally, the team had wanted to try to make a board out of discarded clear plastic bottles. This proved impossible, because a mold wasn’t available, but the team did succeed in building a transparent board made of recycled plastic sheeting wrapped around a balsa frame, incorporating fins of a unique, safer design. Dice-T has been surfing on it.

For the second set of concerns the group produced, from existing off the shelf products, a finished assemblage, called the Diamondback of watertight compartments (allowing surfers to  listen to iPods or event talk on the phone while riding); pads, a water pack, a solar-powered alarm clock/timer and a lifejacket.

Finally, the team of Andrew Tronson (EE), Dustin Kilpatrick (EE),  Katlyn Schlatter (ME), and Kevin Courtoy (ME) created an Interactive surfboard. Using FabLab facilities, the team embedded aluminum sensors and electronic chips and display into a longboard custom shaped for them.  Then they programmed the chips to interpret the sensor readings. 
Kevin Courtoy, Katlyn Schlatter,  Dustin Kilpatrick, and Andrew Tronson, with interactive board with control screen under USC logo. (see inset, right corner, displaying message)

The board includes a lcd display window, in which a rider who is lying prone can observe speed and other information – and receive a command to stand up (or not to). After the ride, the rider can see details about the ride, including length, maximum speed, and time on the nose (with congratulatory messages). 

The team noted that it would be quite easy to share the information with a ground station on shore, so that surfers could compare rides; or even put the information on the internet so riders at home could see what was happening at the beach.

Surf competitions could use the system to track competitors, or even to record the performances of multiple surfers using the same board.

Maby beamed at the conclusion of the presentations, which had, he admitted, surprised even him. He had one question: “What’s the assignment for next year?”