UC San Diego engineers surf the wave of citizen science with Smartfin

The Smartfin replaces a surfboard's fin to help scientists track temperatures in the waves.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

With the rising tide of citizen science, UC San Diego engineers have developed a fin-shaped surfboard attachment that enables them to harness the popularity of surfing to further scientific research.

The device, called Smartfin, is equipped with temperature and location sensors. It is mounted on a surfer’s longboard, allowing scientists to access a relatively challenging area of the water.

Nathan Hui, a staff research engineer at UCSD who is responsible for technical oversight of the design work on the Smartfin, said the surf zone is “one of the least understood areas in the ocean … mostly because it’s very challenging to place instruments [there].”

With an increase in citizen science — the collection of data by members of the public for use by scientists — drawing on the plethora of surfers who ride the waves each day in La Jolla seemed a natural direction for the research to take.

“You’ve got all these people bobbing up and down in the waves,” Hui said, gesturing toward dozens of surfers in the ocean near Scripps Pier on a recent afternoon. “Why not use them to measure the waves in this near-shore environment?”

The Smartfin was initially built by Philip Bresnahan, an alumnus of UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography who is now a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Hui said the surface temperatures measured by Smartfin will help scientists track changes on a hyperlocal level, from Scripps Pier to Black’s Beach to La Jolla Shores.

The varying bathymetry, or depth measurements of the ocean, along La Jolla’s coast makes each micro-portion of the sea here unique, he said.

The water off Scripps is shallow for a longer distance, whereas the underwater canyon off La Jolla Shores is much closer to the shoreline.

“It’s interesting [to] actually measure the differences in sea surface temperature as you just go along the coastline, as well as throughout the day, and see how those change as the tides are changing,” Hui said.

UC San Diego staff research engineer Nathan Hui holds the Smartfin.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The data will tell scientists “a lot about the way the ocean currents interact with the local ecology,” Hui said, which will help the researchers understand changes in biodiversity.

Encouraging surfers to do more of what they love while collecting data for scientists is an easy way to collect temperature information, he added, as all surfers need to do is swap their longboard fin for the Smartfin, go surfing and then charge the device afterward.

Smartfin automatically records temperatures, which are uploaded to UCSD servers when the fin is charged.

The fin is engineered to offer the same surfing performance as a regular board fin, Hui said.

“You’ve got all these people bobbing up and down in the waves. Why not use them to measure the waves in this near-shore environment?”

— Nathan Hui, UCSD staff research engineer

Only a couple of Smartfin prototypes currently are in use, Hui said. He added that the device is about a year away from getting into the hands of many local surfers.

Smartfin can have other uses as well, with an inertial measurement unit installed with the capability to track wave height, Hui said. The device also could one day be used to measure salinity and chlorophyll levels.

“As we start getting this into the hands of more … scientists, it’ll be interesting to see ... how they find new ways of using it,” he said.

Future modifications could include shrinking the Smartfin to bullet-size for scuba divers to take with them to help scientists monitor data deeper in the ocean, Hui said.

The focus now, though, is ensuring that Smartfin is most “useful for one particular application and then branching out into different sensors and developing it as a platform for citizen scientists to use,” he said. ◆