In his early teens, Dr Mark Battley would build model boats and then throw them out a window into his parents' Para pool, just to see what happened.
Many years later, Battley, associate professor in the Department of Engineering Science and deputy director of the University of Auckland's Centre for Advanced Composite Materials (CACM) is – metaphorically speaking, anyway – doing much the same thing.
He, his colleagues and a succession of PhD students work in, among others, a field known as Fluid Structure Interaction (FSI) or as Battley puts it: structures hitting water (or water hitting structures).
This has relevance when you put the two things together – advanced composite materials like carbon fibre and how such materials react and cope with loads and stresses from factors such as waves to deliver best performance.
Applications of this brand of science are many and varied. Battley and the CACM are working or have worked for various America's Cup and other sailing teams, the US Office of Naval Research, New Zealand aerospace firm Rocket Lab, BMW, Australian aviation and marine researchers – and are now pursuing an intriguing approach to the global issue of climate change and, in particular, rising sea levels and more severe storms threatening coastlines.
Advanced composite materials have a number of uses in aerospace, aviation, sporting equipment, boating, industrial pipes and tanks, components of car bodies and military applications, to name just a few.
But perhaps it is the America's Cup and other high-performance yacht work which might be most recognisable, even though Battley and colleagues cannot say much about the hush-hush nature of the current work they are doing.
Performance is one aspect and to understand a little more of the CACM's work, remember those America's Cup yachts which not only performed poorly, they either sank or broke. Failure to properly analyse and construct advanced composite structures can lead to dramatic failures like the sinking of One Australia in 1995 when John Bertrand's 75-foot Cup yacht sank during racing off San Diego and Dennis Connor's equally dramatic sinking in 2003 when the rudder shaft broke and tore a hole in the hull.
"That whole field of structures hitting water is something I have been working on since my early teens," says Battley, "and I and many others have been working for decades now to come up with solutions."
CACM have developed a unique testing facility (not to mention a global reputation) where the effect of water and waves on boats can be tested and measured and computer models developed for implementation on life-size boats.
This expertise has seen CACM provide FSI advice to the US Office of Naval Research; their work on impact of composite materials has provided BMW with solutions ideal for a carmaker with a reputation for driving pleasure but who also need their vehicles to be safe in case that pleasure ends with a crash.
Impact research, as it is known, also saw Australian researchers approach CACM with a project to find out how their helicopters fared if they crashed at sea.
"Modern helicopters are designed to protect the occupants," says Battley, "but that design is largely aimed at crashing on land…turns out many helicopters crash at sea because they are engaged in search & rescue, support of offshore operations and military activities.
"So what is needed is materials and design to soften the impact to protect the occupants and let that helicopter stay afloat for long enough so the occupants can get out."
The most recent work on climate change and sea level rise could hold significant impact for New Zealand: "We are looking at the impact of waves on our coastline and coastal defence structures," Battley says of a newly-formed multi-disciplinary team.
"Traditionally the approach to coastal protection has been to put up a wall or use seawalls formed from large rocks. It's actually been very military in style – you either 'hold the line' or 'retreat'. We are working on the basis that there must be smarter ways to do this as sea levels continue to rise and, when combined with high tides and bad storms, damage is done.
"We are looking at ways and materials to build defences which may not be rigid but flexible – and which could even include plants as natural defences to complement more traditional engineered structures.
"Think of it a bit like how engineers have responded to earthquakes – with buildings which are now flexible, not rigid, which stay standing and can be remediated quickly should there be any damage.
"This is important for New Zealand – we are a coastal community and, while big cities may be able to afford climate change/sea level defences, small communities can't; it is vitally important for this country we maintain our relationship with the coast [for tourism and a whole host of other social and economic reasons, as well as the relationship many local and Maori communities have with the coast].
"In the end, this work could mitigate the impacts of climate change. That in itself will be important to New Zealand but it could also mean we can export that knowledge, technology and associated solutions to countries overseas."