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New Ways to Analyze Ocean Imagery

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Moore Foundation grant sparks ocean informatics initiative

Over the past decade, ocean scientists have built underwater systems that have greatly expanded their capacity to collect images from under the sea. But the value of such instruments remains limited by the lack of efficient tools to extract information from millions of images gathered each day—and then make this potential treasure trove of scientific data readily accessible to many users.

In a significant step toward designing innovative solutions to organize and analyze the incoming flood of scientific data from new ocean sensors, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has received a $2.17 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to develop ocean imaging informatics tools.

“Informatics has been described as the art and science of organizing knowledge and making it useful for problem solving,” said WHOI information systems specialist Andrew Maffei, who will co-lead the project with WHOI biologist Heidi Sosik. “I’m most excited about learning how to build ocean scientist / computer scientist partnerships.” The work will be done in collaboration with the Tetherless World Research Constellation group at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The project will focus on three innovative underwater imaging systems WHOI has developed in recent years to study fisheries, corals, and harmful algal blooms. The Imaging FlowCytobot, an automated underwater microscope system developed by Sosik and colleagues, has been recording high-resolution images of hundreds of millions of phytoplankton at the WHOI Martha's Vineyard Coastal Observatory (MVCO) for more than four years. HabCam, a vehicle-mounted camera system, is towed over the ocean bottom, taking high-resolution images and each day creating continuous 100-nautical-mile-long ribbons of images like the one above. SeaBED, developed by WHOI engineer Hanumant Singh, is an autonomous underwater vehicle that can swim slowly or hover over the seafloor to depths of 6,561 feet (2,000 meters); it collects highly detailed sonar and optical images of the seafloor, which can be made into photomosaics.

“HabCam provides an expansive view of the seafloor, but we are swamped in images—we collect a half million every day,” said WHOI biologist Scott Gallager, who co-developed HabCam, along with WHOI engineers Johathan Howland and Lane Abrams, Commercial Fishermen Richard Taylor and Norman Vine, and other members of the HabCam Group including Amber York (WHOI), Arnie DeMello and Captain Paul Rosonina (Arnie's Fisheries), and the crew of the F/V Kathy Marie. “Extracting information from those in an automated and efficient way is essential to addressing long-standing science questions” and could eventually be used to survey sea scallops, ground fish, and other commercially important species for fisheries management.

“It is the beginning of a long-term strategy that involves a close partnership with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to help generate image informatics tools that have broad academic and societal impact,” said Susan Avery, president and director of WHOI. “WHOI is known for having a strong connection between scientists and engineers, who together tackle the challenges of working in the marine environment. Informatics is the next essential technological advance that will ensure the rapid production of scientific output.”

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