Could Drones Revolutionize the Future of Surf Judging?

A sight we might need to get used to? Photo: WSL

The Inertia

On December 9, the International Surfing Association (ISA) took a stand against the construction of the controversial judging tower at Teahupo’o in Tahiti for the 2024 Olympic Games. I, like most everyone else, was surprised. A national federation biting the hand that feeds them? That does not happen often in the Olympic world.

But, another minor, largely overlooked detail in the statement caught me off guard: “The ISA proposal included judging the competition remotely, with live images shot from land, water and drones.”

Drones? For surf judging? Of course, judging with live images from cameras would be an interesting twist in itself, but using drones was a fascinating proposal. As far as I could tell, drones had never officially been used in high-level surf judging, let alone under the increased scrutiny of the Olympics. Drones have certainly revolutionized how we consume surf content, but could they do the same to surf judging?

The judging proposal sent by the ISA claims drones could be used as one angle, among others, that the judges could access to score waves. One drone blog caught wind of the ISA’s plan and posted an article that posed the question: “Can drones resolve 2024 Summer Olympics surfing controversy?”

My mind started racing: How would that work? Wouldn’t it be unfair that the angle the judges use to view the wave would not be consistent each time from a drone? How many drones would be buzzing around the surfers to properly cover all the waves? How many drone operators would you need? Isn’t that going to be expensive? How often would you need to swap out batteries? Would it be used for watching replays or judging in real time?

To get some answers to my questions I reached out to experts in the space: one surf judge and two drone pilots that work in the surf industry. I walked away from my conversations thinking that the age of drone judging might not be that far away.

“I think the use of drones to complement judging is an excellent idea,” Gustavo Corrales, the head judge of the Costa Rican Surfing Federation, told me. According to Corrales, now that surfing has reached an esteemed Olympic status, it makes sense to take advantage of all the tools available to enhance the judging, especially for events that have lots of heats.

“Perhaps the flight and coverage area of the drones can be divided into sectors,” added Corrales. “It could help add details to certain aspects of judging such as height of an air, section of the wave in which the maneuver was executed, angles, axes, (and degrees) of rotation, the take off line (of the air), etc.”

But Corrales did note that the cost of adding drones to a judging team would be cost prohibitive for many surfing federations around the world. A surf-event drone operator, at least in a U.S. market, makes roughly $500 per day depending on the event. Multiply that by several drone operators over the course of a waiting period and it’s a significant added cost. Corrales points out that this would mean very few judges around the world would be trained in using this type of technology. 

To understand how a drone could be used for judging, it’s important to understand how surf judging replay currently works. Of course, the judges score the waves based on what they see with their naked eye. But the head judge will often revert to replay if a wave needs further examination. The source of those replay images varies. The WSL, I’m told, largely relies on the broadcast cameras for replay, but, at times, may have a camera dedicated just for judges replay. On the other hand, for ISA events, there are four dedicated replay cameras for judges on land separate from the broadcast – one assigned to each surfer in the water. This guarantees that no waves are missed, especially in four-person heats. 

While drones are often used for the webcasts and highlight packages, they are not currently used for judges replay. And it makes sense. A drone inserts many variables into the equation.

Surf photographer and drone operator Sean Evans told me using a drone would certainly be possible from a technical standpoint, rebutting my argument that drone batteries don’t last long enough.

“Depending on your drone, like a Mavic 3, you can get 45 minutes to an hour out of your battery,” explained the San Diego native. “It’s totally possible. It would most likely take six drones total with three always in the air at different angles. (They would be) most likely stationary with small movements if necessary.”

Another drone operator, Aaron Jessee, based in San Clemente, agrees that challenges presented by battery life are surmountable. He says that replacement drones could be launched before the batteries of those already in the field of play are exhausted. 

Could Drones Revolutionize the Future of Surf Judging?

For judging from a drone to work, every surfer would have to be filmed at the same angle. Photo: WSL

But he also has his doubts. He would have to see it play out in the real world to know for sure how it would work. 

“With new drone technology you can have a ‘waypoint’ marked in the sky to have the same exact angle every time,” explained Jessee. “The drone would have to be at the same height and same angle for every wave for this to be a viable solution. The drone would also need to be more of a static angle and you would need to have one drone per surfer. But this would most likely cause a lot of signal interference and result in a glitchy, distorted feed. I think you would need to do several test runs before. One of my main concerns is not actually batteries or the angle, but rather the weather. If it rains you have to put it on hold. And if it’s really windy the drone battery life and stability could be an issue.” 

After speaking with the experts, it’s apparent that drones could certainly help surf judging and, technically speaking, it doesn’t seem that far fetched that a few experienced operators could implement a creative workflow. The question is: Do we really need to fix what’s not broken? A tower-less Olympics at Teahupo’o would have provided the impetus to test it out. But now that Paris 2024 has confirmed they are building the tower, there is likely no longer a need for judging drones. Regardless, it might not be as crazy of an idea as it seems. But who knows? Maybe the 10-point rides of 2030 will come to you courtesy of drone angles.


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