Taxpayer dollars fund all sorts of strange things, from mysterious drones to vacuum-powered wall-climbers, but one unlikely investment that’s kept paying off for half a century is the Navy’s Floating Instrument Platform. In its research mode, with sensor arms extended over the water, FLIP looks like an alien probe out of the sci-fi stinker Battleship, but in fact it’s a floating research station built back in 1962.
FLIP is 355 feet of weirdness that is towed out to sea lengthwise, then flips on end to float like a giant buoy. With most of its hull below the water, acting as a giant stabilizer, the flip ship is an extraordinarily stable platform for scientific instruments conducting fine measurements above, below, and on the surface. 16 people – five crew and 11 scientists – can cram into the unsubmerged portion for up to a month of at-sea experiments. Owned by the Office of Naval Research and operated by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, FLIP was originally built to research the acoustics of underwater sound, a life-or-death issue for sailors hunting submarines.
In recent years, FLIP’s been used to study subjects ranging from the weather to the propagation of light across the boundary between air and water, another topic with implications both for civilian research and military sensors. As defense budgets shrink, trust in government ebbs, and sequestration looms, it’s worth remembering that there are some public-private projects that can pay off for both national security and pure science.