Posted by: Schuyler R. Thorpe | July 15, 2011

Mukilteo Engineers Design a ‘Tsunami Escape Capsule’

Mukilteo engineers think their design could save lives in a tsunami

MUKILTEO — Structural engineers Julian Sharpe and Scott Hill spend most of their working time at their business, IDEA International Inc., doing hard-core engineering analysis for the aerospace industry, including their old employer, the Boeing Co.

Their engineering minds kicked into gear after they saw the devastation caused by Indonesia’s 2004 earthquake and tsunami, which left nearly a quarter-million people around the Indian Ocean dead. That’s when they started thinking that some sort of water-tight survival capsule could be a lifesaver for people who live in low-lying coastal areas around the world subject to the ravages of tsunamis or storm surges.

But it remained only a notion until Japan’s powerful March earthquake and tsunami pushed water and debris inland up to six miles.

“That’s when we got pen to paper,” said Sharpe, chief executive of IDEA International, whose offices overlook the Mukilteo ferry terminal.

Sharpe and Hill reasoned that a sphere would have the best chance of surviving a tsunami because a round object will bounce off solid items such as buildings or vehicles, while being highly resistant to penetrating impacts from floating debris. Their basic design shows a fixed floor with a counterweight and seating for four people around a central vertical steel post. The molded plastic seats have safety harnesses and drawers below for emergency supplies. It has two waterproof access doors and a hook for aerial recovery.

From there, Sharpe and Hill developed a second model in which the floor can rotate within the sphere, keeping it more level for the capsule’s occupants.

Both models are designed to be tethered with a heavy cable to a solid mounting point.
Sharpe said he thought about the need for some kind of capsule during visits to Cannon Beach, Ore., a popular tourist destination where a tsunami could cause widespread damage and injury. He also noted the logistical challenge of evacuating large numbers of people on potentially short notice and the likelihood of traffic gridlock.

He said his idea is to change the philosophy of uncertain escape to one of immediate survival.
“We’ve applied the philosophy of thinking of every single eventuality” to the capsule’s design, Sharpe said.

They’ve studied the sorts of debris tsunamis create — from driftwood on sparsely populated coasts to buildings and vehicles in urban areas — and are working on three different exterior shell materials that would be strong enough to deal with the anticipated debris.
Hill said tsunami events are generally short in nature, with water flowing in and out in a matter of minutes. If the capsule does get swept out to sea or into a debris field, an emergency locator beacon is designed to guide rescuers to it.

Sharpe and Hill have entered their design in NASA Tech Briefs magazine’s 2011 Create the Future Design Contest in the safety and security category, one of seven groups in the global contest.

“The ideas range from genius to completely mad,” Sharpe said.

The public can view the entries online and vote for their favorites. After public voting ends Aug. 31, a panel of 24 technical experts will crown the top three ideas in each category. The winning idea is worth $20,000.

“We want feedback,” Sharpe said.

Even if their design doesn’t win the top prize, Sharpe and Hill intend to find a way to get the capsule into production, possibly with a philanthropic investor’s backing.

Their goal is to make the capsule strong, light and affordable. They think it’ll cost about $250,000 to develop the prototype and anticipate a retail price of around $1,000.

Meanwhile, Sharpe and Hill continue their daily engineering projects while wooing aerospace customers with their technical prowess and ability to draw on the expertise of the many retired Boeing engineers who live in the area. They expect to get busier as airlines order new passenger jets and assembly picks up over the coming decade.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” Sharpe said.

“Ultimately, we’re trying to grow,” Hill said. “That’s how we got the idea for the capsule.”

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