This Surfboard Maps Waves and Gathers Ocean Data for Researchers

Sensors would make surfers into citizen scientists

Adam Hester/Blend Images/Corbis

Citizen scientists, often armed with smart phones, give researchers a veritable army of enthusiastic data collectors. They can help track the spread of invasive species or plant diseases. But many projects rely on people keeping an eye on things that are easily accessible, often in people's backyards — as a result the oceans are woefully understaffed with citizen scientists. Now there’s a way that people who dip into the sea almost daily can help: Researchers have come up with a smart surfboard.

For Outside, Mary Catherine O’Connor writes about a surfboard tricked out with sensors that talk to smart phones. The idea came from Andrew Stern, an environmental filmmaker and former professor who met a surfboard engineer named Benjamin Thompson. All the sensors — which can collect information about water temperature, acidity and salt content — come in a fin that can be mounted on the body of a surfboard. 

“Surfers are going in the water everyday. They’re in the most critical, hostile zone, and they’re doing it willingly, and they’re doing it for free,” Thompson told Issie Laposwky writing for Wired. “We’re chopping of a whole section of the cost of research, and that could be a real paradigm shift in the way data is collected.”

The project is called Smartphin and it not only collects environmental data to help scientists understand climate change’s effects on the ocean, but also helps surfers figure out where to catch the best waves. Sensors in the fin will gather wave signatures along with tracking data, O’Connor reports:

"In Southern California, from Point Conception to Tijuana, there are probably a dozen buoys in the water that characterize waves," says Thompson. These basically size the wave potential, based on the swells, and project that all the way to the shore. "And then Surfline says, 'This is what we think the waves are doing,'" he says. 

But by culling data from sensors that are actually inside the waves and all around a break, Smartphin can generate a more accurate signature for the waves at any given time that people are surfing, says Thompson. 

The team hopes that benefit will persuade surfers to buy the Smartphin when it becomes available. The first pilot project with the sensor-equipped fin is scheduled to launch next November. 

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