Why Not Go Drone Surfing?

It’s like kite surfing, but with an octocopter

Sep 15, 2016
Outside Magazine
Why Not Go Drone Surfing?

Is this drone surfing video a glimpse of the future or just a goofy one-off experiment?    Photo: Freefly Systems

It’s a hot, windless Saturday in September. You and your buddies wanna go play on the lake, but no one’s got a boat or a Jet Ski. No matter: charge up an octocopter, lash on a tether, and hit the water for some drone surfing.

While not really a fad, drone surfing is at least a possibility, as illustrated in a recent YouTube video from Seattle drone manufacturer Freefly Systems. In the clip, former professional kite surfer Henning Sandstrom of Sweden—a Freefly employee—rides a skimboard across the glassy waters at Dash Point Park in Tacoma, Washington, carving back and forth as he is towed by a $17,500 Alta 8 octocopter.

The video caught fire this week, and has 400,000 views and counting. But is it a glimpse of the future or just a goofy one-off experiment? We posed that question and more to Freefly co-founder Tabb Firchau, 35, whose past work with drones includes filming the aerial scenes in the 2013 Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Wolf of Wall Street as well as various projects for the National Geographic Channel and the BBC.

OUTSIDE: How did the idea come about to drone surf?
FIRCHAU: I don’t deserve any credit. I’ve been friends with Henning for years, because we were both working as drone cinematographers. He’s kind of like the Swedish Matthew McConaughey—he looks just like him, and he’s the most chill human being the world has ever created. He was goofing around one day and was like, “Hey, let’s pull me across the parking lot on a skateboard.” They did that, and it worked pretty well, so he started kicking around the idea of skimboarding behind a drone.

  Photo: Freefly Systems

Was that video the first time he tried it? 
Yeah. I think it was one of those days when everybody had had enough time in front of the computer doing CAD and Excel spreadsheets, so we were like, let’s get out and shoot this. It worked pretty well, and when you do something like this and it works, you kinda get this feeling like, oh, I’m really excited to share this with my friends and family and my network, and we all had that feeling. So we hustled and put together a quick edit and pushed it out to the world the next day. I sent it to my friends and said, “This is ridiculous, check it out.” And it just went crazy from there.

Can the drone pull more than someone on a skimboard?
That particular one is really purpose-designed to carry cameras. But the idea is scalable; you could build a multi-rotor that was suited to carry almost anything. Right now its maximum “all up” weight is 40 pounds, but I don’t think there are any technological or physical constraints.

  Photo: Freefly Systems

Henning obviously weighs much more than 40 pounds, so how was it able to pull him?
He weighs about 140, but you’re not truly lifting all his weight. Because of the way the drag and buoyancy work as you’re surfing behind, when you pull someone on a low-friction surface it doesn’t take as much force to pull them.

Do you know of anyone else who’s tried this?
People are always doing wacky shit with drones. I’ve seen a few people who have done skateboard towing and maybe some snowboarding, but never surfing.

Are there any real-world drone applications related to this?
We weren’t really thinking about those; we were just screwing around. Right now we build stuff that moves cameras around the sky and that’s really fun and great, but it would be cool to build something in the future that actually helps people. We kick around ideas all the time with that in mind. You could have a drone similar to, or maybe a bigger version of, the Alta 8 that sits on top of a lifeguard tower and then flies out if someone needs help and drops them a line and drags them in.

Have you sold more drones since this video came out?
I’m not sure, actually. We’ve had a ton of people say, “I want to buy the Alta and drone surf,” but we’re like, the Alta wasn’t really made for drone surfing. This was just for fun. It’s like an automotive maker coming out with a concept car that shows what could be in the future. 

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