Origins of Spotter

Origins of Spotter

The Mouth of the Columbia River is one of the most dangerous coastal inlets in the world. Nicknamed ‘the Graveyard of the Pacific’, it has claimed over 2,000 vessels and an estimated 1,000 lives. So you could say it is a tricky spot. The combination of energetic waves arriving from the northwest Pacific, amplified by extremely strong tidal currents sand an ebb-tidal shoal (the ‘Bar’) just outside the river mouth, result in large, steep, sometimes breaking waves over the Bar. Combined with surface currents of nearly 7 mph, this creates a notorious navigational hazard.
In 2013, the Office of Naval Research funded research to measure wave-current dynamics in the Mouth of the Columbia River (MCR). Our team was invited to collect measurements to validate a recent theory on freak waves [Janssen & Herbers, 2009].

But that wasn’t going to be easy. After all, the same stuff that breaks ships, also breaks instruments. Traditionally, waves and currents are measured either by a surface-following instrument anchored to the seafloor (a moored wave buoy), or an instrument mounted on the bottom that measures pressure or velocity fluctuations induced by the waves. But neither of these approaches would work here.

A moored buoy does not work in strong currents since the current tensions the mooring line, preventing the buoy from following the surface motions accurately. If the current is strong enough, the buoy would simply be pulled under. In either case, the measurements would be useless. The alternative, a bottom-mounted instrument, would either get destroyed by the wave-current energy or buried by the continual flow of sediment.

An alternative solution

By simple elimination, if we cannot use a bottom-mounted instrument or moored buoy, what if we just use a buoy, but not moor it? Simply deploy an array of drifting instruments and let them ‘go with the flow’? And if we deploy them on an ebb current, the drifting wave buoys would provide detailed wave and current information all along their track (lots of data).

To do this meaningfully however, we would need about 30-50 instruments, which is problematic. Like most oceanographic instrumentation, wave-measuring buoys are very expensive. We could not afford one, let alone thirty. And nobody would lend us theirs after we explained what we wanted to do with them.

This meant we had to start building our own. We had learned in earlier studies how to measure surface wave motions with off-the-shelf sensors [see e.g. Herbers et al. 2012; Pearman et al. 2014], so we started prototyping our own sensor packages together. And that worked. We managed to get an amazing dataset of wave-current interactions in the mouth of the Columbia river.

To be clear, these early wave-current drifters were notoriously difficult to work with, very fragile, the electronics were prototyped together, running rudimentary software, and the battery life was abysmal. As it turns out, there is a difference between making a functional tool and a product that somebody else can actually use. Changing the way we collected our data was one thing. But how could we help others do the same?

What if ...?

Taking a step back. Today, even basic ocean monitoring requires lots of money, specialized crew, and complex logistics. This means that ocean data collection is slow, expensive, and we rely mostly on governments, big institutions, and large companies to drive it. As a result, ocean data is sparse.

So could we use our learnings in the Mouth of the Columbia, to help get more people involved in ocean data collection (democratize ocean data) by simplifying and economizing the process and the equipment? We decided to pursue this question in the summer of 2015 when we got some seed funding and IDEO-alumni Anke Pierik and Evan Shapiro joined as Spoondrift co-founders to drive this to the next level. We set out to create Spotter: a low-cost, connected device that provides excellent data, is powered entirely by the sun, and is simple enough for anyone to use.

From there on we sketched, prototyped, tried, tested, failed, prototyped, tried again, and probably failed a few more times. And as a team we went through cycles of desperation, exhilaration, exhaustion, and laughter. But eventually Spotter started to take shape. And after extensive testing, data validation, and continued improvements, Spotter is ready. On June 6 we launched Spotter and started pre-sales of our first 30 units. Putting us one step closer to a more connected ocean!

Not alone ….

We certainly didn’t get to launch Spotter alone. Along the way we have had incredible help from a long list of friends, colleagues, investors, and companies/organizations to help us get Spotter off the ground, and into the water.

We want to particularly thank Craig Jones, Grace Chang, Frank Spada, Kaus Raghukumar, and the team from Integral Consulting, who partnered up with us in the development, provided input and feedback, took on an extensive part of the beta testing, shared resources where they could, and organized experiments in excellent locations to test prototypes.

We also thank the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), US Department of Energy, for the support of the development and commercialization of Spotter, and the Office of Naval Research (Littoral Geosciences and Optics program) for their continued support of low-cost sensor technology in ocean research.


Gonzalez, F.I. 1984, 'A Case Stude of Wave-Current-Bathymetry Interactions at the Columbia River Entrance', J. of Phys. Ocean.14, 1065-1078.

Herbers, T.H.C, P.F. Jessen, T.T. Janssen, D.B. Colbert, and J. MacMahan, 2012; 'Observing Ocean Surface Waves with GPS-Tracked Buoys', J. of Atmos. and Ocean. Techn., 29, 944-959.

Janssen, T.T. & T.H.C. Herbers, 2009, 'Nonlinear Wave Statistics in a Focal Zone', J. of Phys. Ocean., 39, 1948-1964.

Pearman, D.W., T.H.C. Herbers, T.T. Janssen, H.D. van Ettinger, S.A. McIntyre, and P.F. Jessen, 2014; 'Drifter observations of the effect of shoals and tidal-currents on wave evolution in San Francisco bight', Cont. Shelf Research91, 109-119.