Drone startup resolves world’s hottest debate: wave height in surfing

drone wave surfers

The topic most likely to provoke heated disputes between surfers (apart from whether anybody else has the right to be out at their spot) is just how big the waves they’ve ridden were – a most subjective and disputatious appreciation that two practitioners of the sport are using drones to perfect.

Meteorologist Teddy Allen and algorithm expert Milan Curic are the driving force behind Henet Wave, a startup they created using a sensor packing drone to accurately measure the size of waves their fellow surfers can never, but ever agree on. The pair has attracted other swell riders and geek-inclined teammates to develop their technique of deploying a UAV equipped with a high-resolution altimeter and sophisticated GPS monitor over breakers. The results have been accurate readings of liquid dimension are currently “calculated” with too much pure eyeballing to be entirely reliable.

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The duo formed Henet – from the Egyptian for “pelican”– in 2020 after reading an article about a women’s big wave surfing competition. The piece debated aspects of how winners of competitions were determined, with the element of size oddly being less of a factor than “making” the giant swells – that is, riding them all the way to the end. 

“To us the bigger debate should have been the ability to differentiate between a 73-foot wave and a 69-foot wave using subjective methods,” the startup’s website recalls, with Allen and Curic immediately deciding approximative appreciation was flawed to begin with. “Henet was born… (and now) guides surfers into the new world of purely objective real time XXL wave measurement.”

The pro surfing world has developed a formula to determine – ish – wave height, but in the end that remains a skew-prone method and the source of much bickering. 

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Traditionally, Californians have tended to exaggerate swell size, with Hawaiians erring in the opposite direction. The great New Yorker journalist and lifelong surfer William Finnegan encountered one person who couldn’t approximate in feet, but “could estimate with fair accuracy how many refrigerators stacked on top of one another would equal the height of the waves.”

Try that one with professional competitors, or even swagger-prone amateurs who populate most lineups.

To avoid the biases humans bring to the task, Henet uses a drone whose sensors feed crest-to-trough size readings back to operators in real time. Those provide accurate size measurement for waves as small as a foot, to as large as surfers can look out without losing bladder control.

In addition to that, what the founders call their “aerial buoy” can also determine wave period – a major factor determining how strong swell are – with a single drone capable of sizing up set after set as surfers ride them. The only limitation of the technique is the usual battery capacities of UAVs.

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To test their drone innovation out, Allen and Curic took it to the current Mecca of big wave surfing at Portugal’s Nazaré last February. Swell sizes varied between 15 or 20 feet and 40 to 50 feet ­– the giant of the session being a monster they measured as 70.87 feet, exactly.

In addition to making their drone tech more widely available to put an end to the interminable surfer arguments about who shredded the biggest face of the day, Allen and Curic’s other ambition is to be the first fans of the sport to accurately and indisputably measure a wave of 100 feet or more.

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