Recent advances in underwater robotics and 3D imaging are transforming how researchers explore and document delicate deep-sea ecosystems. New technologies are proving capable of rapidly capturing high-resolution images of elusive species in their natural habitats – images that previously would have required risky and cumbersome manned submersibles.
Cutting-Edge Underwater Robots Provide Unprecedented Access
A number of newly-developed remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are demonstrating the potential to accelerate the pace of discovery in the dark, high-pressure depths of the ocean. Equipped with state-of-the-art cameras, lighting, and sampling equipment, these robots can reach areas and spend more time on site than is safe or practical for human occupants.
One recent development generating excitement is the dodecahedron-shaped exploring robot Mesobot. This unique design allows the robot to drift with deep-sea currents, capturing images and collecting samples along the way:
|Approximately 3 feet per side
|Uses flotation and currents to drift through habitat
|Cameras, sampler, and environmental sensors
In 2022 tests aboard the R/V Neil Armstrong research ship, Mesobot succeeded in autonomously moving with undersea currents and capturing over 10,000 photographs at depths between 6,000-11,000 feet over a 22-hour mission.
According to lead researcher Brennan Phillips, “Mesobot uniquely allows us to sample from the midwater zone, which remains relatively unexplored when compared to the seafloor.” Its maneuverability and extended time on site allows comprehensive surveys of midwater species and conditions.
New Tech Yields Rapid High-Resolution 3D Models
In addition to accessing hard-to-reach areas, new technologies are enabling more rapid and detailed 3D documentation of delicate deep-sea creatures. A new laser scanning system developed at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution can capture high-resolution 3D images of gelatinous zooplankton and other fragile organisms in minutes versus the hours previously required.
The system uses blue lasers to illuminate samples in a glass cylinder from all sides, building up cross sections which are synthesized into full 3D models. Lead developer Walt Golet explains, “You get incredible resolution?—?the software can detect if single hairs are bent or broken off.” The speed of capture also allows documenting live animals with far less stress and deformation from lights and handling.
|Comparison of Imaging Methods
|New Laser Scanning Technique
|Time to Capture
|White light sheet
|100-250 ??m pixel size
|1-5 ??m pixel size
This combination of speed, resolution, and reduced invasiveness has researchers optimistic about rapidly expanding libraries of high-fidelity 3D scans tied to genomic and environmental data. These volumes of linked data will provide new insights into the astounding biodiversity occupying major habitat zones still largely unexplored by humans.
Global Collaborations Expanding Deep-Sea Understanding
Leveraging accelerating technological developments, researchers across marine science institutions are coordinating efforts to improve fundamental understanding of deep-sea ecosystems through mapping, monitoring, and integrative modeling.
One expansive initiative is the Genomic Observatory Metabarcoding Study (GEOMS) analyzing seawater samples from around the world to assess the diversity of marine life via traces of environmental DNA. Covering depths down to 4,000 meters, this growing dataset allows tracking the distribution of species and how they shift in response to conditions like temperature and oxygen levels. GEOMS co-founder Amy Apprill summarizes: “We use genomic tools to determine ‘who is there’ in a more comprehensive way and then collaborate with experts to learn ‘what are they doing.'”
Global partnerships like GEOMS will be increasingly vital to guide policy and responsible resource management. Apprill concludes, “The deep sea is facing threats from climate change, mining, fishing and development. Our study helps establish baselines of biodiversity in virtually unexplored regions.” Integrative sampling and modeling made possible by ongoing technology developments can shed light on humanity’s impacts on sensitive seafloor and midwater inhabitants before irreversible damage is done.
Outlook: An Age of Accelerated Deep-Sea Discovery Dawns
Fueled by rapid advances in robotics, imaging, and computing, marine researchers find themselves poised to uncover and digitally preserve delicate ocean ecosystems at an unprecedented pace. Within years, expansive high-resolution maps of seabed habitats could guide conservation priorities and operations of resource extraction industries. Within decades, a comprehensive catalog of global marine biodiversity could emerge – impossible dreams just years ago due to the vastness, dangers, and technological barriers of the deep sea.
While much work remains to integrate and interpret proliferating volumes of data, leading researchers are optimistic these breakthroughs mark a new chapter in humanity’s relationship with the oceans. As both resource base and climate regulator, improving our stewardship of and coexistence with marine environments will only grow more crucial in times ahead. If knowledge and understanding pave the path to compassion and care, technology may yet help shepherd in an age where critical deep-sea habitats are finally accorded something closer to the respect and protection they deserve.
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