Surf devices predict real-time wave action

UNSW graduate and inventor Nathan Adler has founded Surf Sense, a startup that's developing systems for measuring and predicting wave activity, including a wearable wave-detection device. 

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Photo: Shutterstock

Nathan Adler, who recently began a graduate engineering role with Telstra, has been involved in the start-up and innovation space for several years, helping to develop and bring-to-market new initiatives and inventions.

The UNSW Engineering/Commerce graduate’s thesis explored low-cost positioning technology that could be used to cheaply and easily measure ocean waves. Now he has launched his own start-up company based on that idea.

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UNSW Engineering/Commerce graduate and founder of Surf Sense, Nathan Adler

As an expert-in-residence at UNSW’s Michael Crouch Innovation Centre where he worked with the University’s students, alumni and staff to develop ideas for innovative hardware or new inventions, he helped others build prototype devices for their projects and businesses.

Nathan, a keen surfer, wondered if it was possible to know and predict wave activity in precise locations at surfing breaks. He also wanted a device he could wear in the ocean that would tell him when unpredictable, larger sets of waves were approaching.

Wave-making innovators: Nathan Adler and Surf Sense

Name: Nathan Adler, UNSW Engineering/Commerce graduate; expert-in-residence at UNSW’s Michael Crouch Innovation Centre; graduate engineer in Telstra’s Network Operations team
Innovation: Surf Sense, a coastal wave monitoring and notification system for beaches and other ocean recreation locations with a wearable wave-detection device that notifies surfers and rock fishermen about the size and timing of large waves
Enterprise: CEO and Co-Founder of Surf Sense, software engineer at Cuberider; co-founder of CREATE UNSW

Late last year he and his friend and fellow UNSW engineering graduate Sam Cassisi, began working on Surf Sense, a coastal wave monitoring and notification system for beaches.

“I believed that Sam and I had the knowledge and experience from our university studies, work and project management experience to pull this off,” says Nathan.

The two inventors have now built a prototype wave-measuring buoy that streams data over the internet to a mobile app. They are also developing a wearable device that receives live notifications via Wi-Fi hotspots on the beach, designed for use by surfers and rock fishers. 

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Nathan and his co-inventor Sam Cassisi testing their system at Bondi Beach (Credit: Nathan Adler)

With the approval of NSW Roads and Maritime Services, they are about to commence long-run testing of their first solar powered ocean-ready wave buoy at Bondi Beach.The two inventors have now built a prototype wave-measuring buoy that streams data over the internet to a mobile app. They are also developing a wearable device that receives live notifications via Wi-Fi hotspots on the beach, designed for use by surfers and rock fishers.

The NSW Government collects offshore wave data at seven sites off the state’s coast using buoys but they are not using live data for real-time applications.

“New applications for Surf Sense come up every few weeks,” says Nathan, listing fishermen, surfers and surf competitions, and scientists conducting coastal erosion studies, as potential users.

He hopes to develop Surf Sense as a broader platform for other ocean experiments such as collecting ocean temperature data. He also wants to make it cheaper than existing systems and accessible to the public.

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System testing at the Bondi Icebergs club (Credit: Nathan Adler)

Even before he had finished his UNSW studies, Nathan was forging a career that would be characterised by innovation. 

In 2012, along with Sam Cassisi, he helped found CREATE NSW, a student club that teaches members how to build and program electronic devices, ranging from interactive artworks to drones, and offers cheap electronic components through a student-run shop on campus.

Among other technical roles that have included the development of wearables and vision and control systems for drones, Nathan led embedded software engineering at Cuberider, a space education company founded by UNSW Engineering student Solange Cunin, which recently launched Australia’s first payload to the International Space Station. He was also a VIVID Sydney presenter in 2014, and an artist in 2015 (“Robotic Pacman”) and 2016 (“I Love You”, “Exterminia”).

The first engineer in his family, Nathan enjoyed robotics from a young age.

“I entered a lot of competitions that were held at UNSW. Pretty early on it was clear that I liked building and designing things. Even though my main passion was designing and creating, I also felt like I was business-minded, which led me to studying a combined engineering and commerce degree.

“Being around other students at UNSW who had started their own companies gave me the extra inspiration to turn my passion into a viable business.”

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Surf Sense's prototype buoy (Credit: Nathan Adler)

Nathan recently began his new role at Telstra as an engineer in the company’s 18-month graduate program, where he hopes to develop technical expertise in internet-of-things technologies. He is currently a member of Telstra’s Network Operations team.

He says he doesn’t know where he will be in 10 or 20 years’ time but in the short-term he wants to be a hands-on developer of consumer technology.

“I want to see Surf Sense all the way through, which could take five or more years.”