In a rising tide of citizen science, engineers at the University of California, San Diego have developed a fin-shaped surfboard attachment. This allows the popularity of surfing to benefit scientific research.

The device, called Smartfin, is equipped with temperature and position sensors. Attached to a surfer’s longboard, it gives scientists access to relatively difficult areas of the water.

Nathan Hui, a staff research engineer at UCSD responsible for technical oversight of Smartfin’s design work, said the surf zone is “one of the least understood areas of the ocean…mainly because it is very difficult to place equipment. Because it is difficult,” he said. [there]”

With the rise of citizen science (collecting data by the public for use by scientists), tapping into the large number of surfers who ride waves every day in La Jolla seemed a natural direction for research.

“There are a lot of people bobbing up and down in the waves,” Huy said, pointing to dozens of surfers in the water near Scripps Pier one afternoon. “Why not use them to measure waves in this coastal environment?”

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

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

The varying bathymetry, or measurement of ocean depth, along La Jolla’s coast makes each microsection of the ocean here unique, he said.

The water depth off Scripps is shallow, but the submarine canyons off La Jolla Shores are fairly close to the coastline.

“That’s interesting [to] Not just moving along the coastline, but actually measuring differences in sea surface temperatures throughout the day and seeing how they change as the tide changes,” says Hui.

Nathan Hui, a research engineer at the University of California, San Diego, holds a Smartfin.

Nathan Hui, a research engineer at the University of California, San Diego, holds a Smartfin.

(Elisabeth Fraust)

The data “tell scientists a lot about how ocean currents interact with local ecosystems,” Hui said, adding that it could help researchers understand changes in biodiversity. It’s helpful.

Encouraging surfers to do more of what they love while collecting data for scientists is an easy way to collect temperature information, he added.

Smartfin automatically records the temperature and uploads it to UCSD servers when the fin charges.

Hui said the fins are designed to offer the same surfing performance as regular board fins.

“All these people bobbing up and down in the waves. Why not use them to measure waves in this coastal environment?”

— Nathan Hui, UCSD Staff Research Engineer

According to Hui, only two Smartfin prototypes are currently in use. He added that it would take about a year for the device to get into the hands of many local surfers.

Smartfin could also be used for other applications by installing an inertial measurement unit with the ability to track wave heights, Hui said. In the future, the device may also be used to measure salinity and chlorophyll levels.

“Once we start getting this into the hands of more … scientists, it will be interesting to see how they find new uses,” he said.

Future changes could include shrinking the Smartfin to bullet size so it can be carried by scuba divers to help scientists monitor data at deeper depths in the ocean, Hui said. said.

But the current focus is to ensure that Smartfin is “most useful for one specific application, then branched out into a range of sensors and developed as a platform for use by citizen scientists.” said he. ◆

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