A surfer at twilight

Surfboards embedded with the Smartphin could help save our oceans

Surfing that’s smart and it’s making waves.

If I were to sum up all of our technology into one simple, finite word….it would be smart. From smart drones to smart phones, our world has become more tech savvy and simple. But would you believe that this smart technology has now crossed over the threshold of…..SURFING?! Yes, you heard right. Surfing. Allow me to introduce to you project Smartphin.

Meet the Smartphin

A Smartphin attached to a surfboard that has sensors for tracking water temperature and salinity

A sensor embedded surfboard that can predict ocean conditions and map the continuity of waves with smartphone connectivity, project Smartphin has the potential for turning ordinary surfers into scientists and saving our oceans. Project Smartphin was born in 2010 when a former professor of neurology at the University of Rochester, Andrew Stern, teamed up with Benjamin Thompson, a surfer-turned-structural-engineer-PhD-student at the University of California. After observing that surfers spend copious periods of time on the waves, Stern realized that here was a golden opportunity to conduct an intricate study of the impacts of climate change on the world’s oceans. Stern, now an environmental advocate and filmmaker, had heard about Thompson from a film-making friend. While working on his PhD, Thompson was completing in-depth research on fluid-structure interactions involving surfboards that had embedded sensors. The goal of these boards was to assist surfers in their performance on the waves. However, upon meeting Stern, Thompson hatched the idea of using the sensors embedded in the boards as data collectors that could capture information about wave mechanics and water chemistry.

My intention with this was to use it as a tool to inform people about the environment and specifically the oceans,” says Stern. “I made a map with 17 surf spots around the world and said we’ll deploy to these places as many sensors as the scientists say we’ll need there {to collect} data.” Water temperature, salinity and acidity are all crucial measurements that the sensors embedded in the boards are meant to track.

Since the Industrial Age, oceans have become twenty-five percent more acidic due to absorbing a third of all carbon dioxide that has been produced since then. Calcium carbonate, an important element in the growth of coral reefs and shellfish, is hindered due to higher acidity and a lower pH. However, pH is difficult to measure and quantify. Project Smartphin is working on sensors for tracking salinity and temperature first and then adding a pH sensor later on.

Stern’s film-making organization, Lost Bird Project, has provided a home for Smartphin and the development of pH sensors for tracking ocean acidification. The team competed in a $2 million dollar competition hosted by the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE earlier this year in order to develop a pH sensor that could endure tough ocean conditions, provide accurate data and be affordable for surfers. Competing against prestigious research facilities and universities from all around the world, the Smartphin made it all the way to the semi-finals but faced elimination right before the final round.

The inside of a Smartphin

The Smartphin team is looking to add sensors that will track pH levels in the world’s oceans

With all of the attention and publicity Smartphin has received from the competition, Thompson and Stern are now hoping to whet the appetites of surfers. In November, a pilot project began where fifty researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego hit the waves with Smartphin prototypes attached to their boards. They are now working on comparing the data and testing the technology the Smartphin has to offer. But fifty pieces of data is minute when faced with the vast amounts of data the scientists need to collect in order to understand ocean climate change on a grander scale. They are going to need all of the help they can get. But why should surfers spend time, effort and money on a Smartphin when the boards they already have are good enough for the job?

Smartphin app for your phone

Surfers can use smartphin to track their performance through a smartphone app

Fortunately, Thompson has an answer. He has developed technology within the Smartphin that can track a surfer’s personal performance on the water and where to find the best waves. Using a smartphone app that talks through Bluetooth, surfers will be able to generate high-resolution data that tracks wave signatures and wave location from motion sensors built into the fin wall. Located in major surfing spots in Southern California, buoys that number about a dozen provide information regarding wave signatures. The buoys size up the wave’s potential and then send the information back to the shore for surfers to view. But with Smartphin technology, surfers can track accurate wave signatures at any given point in time. “A lot happens between the deep water and the break zone. You can use models to predict it but you don’t have the best {granularity}, ” says, Thompson. “We’ll remove that by recording what is actually happening.” 

Group surfing

Even surfers can be citizen scientists!

Thompson and Stern are creating a golden opportunity for surfers to not only become better surfers but better stewards of our planet. Knowledge and education is the key that will unlock the door to wisdom and understanding. By developing smarter technology, we ourselves will become smarter in the care and preservation of our planet.

Works Cited:

  1. O’Connor, Mary Catherine. “This Smart, Data-Collecting, Wave-Predicting Surfboard Will Save Our Oceans”. Outside. Outside Online. 22nd May, 2015. Web. Accessed 27th December, 2015.