Learning About the Ocean

We don’t know very much about the ocean, although it covers somewhere between 71 and 75% of the planet. I was a case of “you don’t know what you don’t know” until a couple of months ago, when I signed on to help Half Moon Bay-based startup Spoondrift bring its new device, Spotter, to market. Since then, I’ve learned from one of best — oceanographer Tim Janssen, who is a domain expert. Tim and his two co-founders, both former IDEO designers and engineers, spent more than two years designing and refining Spotter. These people truly love the ocean — they office within walking distance from Maverick’s — and want everyone to know more.

If you are interested in climate change, you are probably aware that glaciers are melting and sea levels are rising. If you live in a beach community you may know something about waves and tides. If you’re really into it, you may also know that because of ocean currents the middle of the ocean is a garbage can for all the stuff we discard along the shoreline. But the ocean has never been mapped, the way the earth has been digitized by Google in recent times, and even the moon’s surface has been observed in more detail than the ocean. To change this, the Spotter team intends to map the ocean collaboratively with its customers.

Spotter is a solar-powered smart device, simple and compact enough that it can be deployed by anyone anywhere to collect and transmit ocean data. Powered by the sun and connected through satellite, it can send data from the middle of the ocean back to a phone or laptop. Spoondrift envisions Spotter’s use by everyone from ocean researchers, to surf clubs and shipping companies.

Never mind how difficult it is to bring hardware to market under the best conditions. To make ocean data more available, the Spoondrift team wants to democratize ocean data collection, and thus aims to make Spotter 10X lower cost than traditional ocean instrumentation. To get there, Spotter was designed from the ground up for scalability, while incorporating design thinking brought in by their IDEO experience. Co-founder Anke Pierik, who is a former design lead at IDEO with a background in industrial design engineering joined to lead the produce development process. Evan Shapiro, the third cofounder and former electrical engineer at IDEO, is the technical mastermind.

Design thinking is not the hallmark of ocean data collection. Instruments are usually designed by engineers, complicated, and very expensive. As a consequence, most ocean data is now generated by a either governments (e.g. NOAA), a handful of research institutions like Scripps, or by large private companies in the offshore or MetOcean industry.

Because of the high cost of conventional instruments, most of our data is collected on our shallow continental shelves, extending usually about 50–100 miles offshore and in water depths of a few hundred meters, shallow enough to anchor the instrument to the bottom. But extending into the deep ocean, with water depths typically in the order of 4000m, tying something down to the bottom is simply too expensive.

And free-floating a $100,000 instrument, accepting the fact that you may never see it again, is usually not acceptable. So a 10x price reduction is not only allowing more people to get involved in ocean data collection, it also changes the types of observations we can make. At around $5K, free-floating instruments, resolving deep ocean wave-current dynamics in real-time, are now a very real possibility.

Spotter was designed to operate without maintenance, and to go anywhere. If a single Spotter is lost, it doesn’t break the bank. That changes what we can do with them. Spoondrift’s team envisions thousands of Spotters deployed in the least explored parts of the ocean, fundamentally crowd-sourcing new information for shipping companies, oil and gas companies, and the Navy.

Theirs is truly a world-changing vision, much like that of SpaceX. Just think of the tsunami that devastated Phuket, Thailand in 2005, ships lost to freak waves, or the role our oceans play in controlling our climate. Better information about the ocean could truly save lives.