Wade Bortz: Sound and Surf

Wade Bortz reckons he's one of maybe 10 people in the world to have kiteboarded off the coast of Diego Garcia, a remote atoll in the Indian Ocean. Kiteboarding, a water sport similar to windsurfing, is just a hobby for Bortz; in the real world, he's a project engineer with the University of Hawaii's Infrasound Laboratory, in Kailua-Kona. But if he weren't an engineer, Bortz figures, he never would have made it to such an exotic locale.

Bortz works on microphone arrays used to detect extremely low-frequency--or infrasonic--waves, which can travel thousands of kilometers following violent explosions, such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. These waves can also come from more subtle sources, such as ocean surf and jet engines. Among infrasound's key uses is monitoring compliance with the United Nations' Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which established a global network of sensors to listen around the clock for signs of a clandestine nuclear detonation.

The Infrasound Laboratory is responsible for installing and maintaining many of the CTBT sensor arrays--large, spidery contraptions secured to the ground--dotting a number of South Pacific islands, such as Palau and Tahiti. Bortz and his colleagues often spend weeks at a time on site, fixing broken components or debugging software. Between trips, Bortz returns home to the Big Island of Hawaii. "It's definitely a high point of the job, getting to see these awesome places that I wouldn't have seen otherwise," he says.

Living and working in tropical climes has been a big change for Bortz. Born in northern California, he moved to Grand Prairie, Alta., Canada, when he was 8 years old. The engineering impulse came early. "My dad was a chemical engineer, and most of our father-son moments were spent in the garage, fixing cars," he recalls. Although he majored in mechanical engineering, graduating in 1997 with a B.S. degree from the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, his work since has been more in electrical engineering. "In school, you learn how to learn," he says. "Once you're on the job, there's a whole new skill set you have to learn."

Bortz has proved adept at acquiring those new skills. After college, he briefly worked designing printed circuit boards for NovAtel Inc., in Calgary, Alta., and then joined Dynastream Innovations Inc., based in Cochrane, Alta., a start-up firm helmed by one of his former professors. Their first product was a one-of-a-kind speedometer for runners that was based on inertial navigation. The device used micromachined accelerometers to measure a runner's stride more than 1000 times per second. Integrating the measurements gave the distance traveled, and averaging measurements over time gave the speed.

"We took it from an idea to a prototype to a commercial product that could be mass-produced," Bortz says. In all, it took several years, but eventually the company sold the technology to firms such as Nike and Timex for use in watches and other products.

Wanting a change of scenery, Bortz moved to North Vancouver, B.C., Canada, in 2003 and took a job as a field engineer with RailPower Technologies Corp., which was developing energy-efficient trains. The company's main focus was a diesel locomotive. "It's the same technology as a hybrid car, except it weighs 100 tons," Bortz explains. "It has a small diesel generator and 15 tons of batteries, and it uses only half the fuel of a regular locomotive." He enjoyed the work, he says, but after the engineering department was relocated to Erie, Pa., he chose to leave rather than move.

Some friends who were working at the University of Hawaii saw a job posting with the Infrasound Lab and encouraged Bortz to apply. It was in a completely new field of engineering for him, but Bortz was intrigued. The variety in his background combined with his willingness to shift gears made him a strong candidate for the position. Last March, he made the move, and almost immediately shipped off to Palau for a month to troubleshoot a new infrasound array.

"There were a lot of setup problems, but finally everything seemed to be working," he says. "Right when we were about to return to Hawaii, we rebooted the system, and of course it didn't work." The array's satellite link to the Vienna, Austria, headquarters of the CTBT's International Data Center, had gone down. "We spent 5 hours panicking and calling everyone we could think of until we found out that someone in Vienna had pulled the plug and not bothered to tell us," he says.

Returning briefly to Hawaii, Bortz headed next to Diego Garcia, an atoll owned by the British and leased to the U.S. military as a port and air base. There, too, the array had gone down. This time the problem was the computer's hard drive.

"When we go out in the field," he says, "we take whatever we can carry onto the plane and hope we can fix the problem with what we have on hand." But Bortz and colleague David Fee, a field systems engineer, hadn't thought to bring an 18-gigabyte SCSI drive. "We had our travel agent in Singapore send her son to the tech market there, and eventually he found a used one and shipped it to us."

One piece of equipment Bortz never leaves behind, however, is his kiteboarding gear, which he packs neatly into a golf bag. He also finds plenty of time to hit the waves back home in Hawaii. It helps that his boss, Infrasound Laboratory director Milton Garcés, a research geophysicist, likes to surf, and that the lab is conveniently close to some prime beaches. "We work hard," Bortz says. "But we sometimes get windy afternoons off."

Wade Bortz (M)

Age: 32.

What he does: Designs, installs, and troubleshoots infrasonic arrays used to monitor the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty.

For whom: Infrasound Laboratory, University of Hawaii, Kailua-Kona.

Where he does it: Various installations across the South Pacific and Indian oceans.

Fun factors: Travels to remote destinations like Tahiti and Palau--and has the freedom to pursue his hobby, kiteboarding, both on the road and back home.