The Expanding Role of Aquatic Imaging and Robotics in Ocean Conservation

October 06, 2017 by Heather Hamilton-Post

Designing technology for underwater research offers unique challenges and innovative solutions.

Designing technology for underwater research offers unique challenges and innovative solutions.

Technology requirements vary across environments and underwater is no different. With the exception of perhaps lifting heavy objects, almost every task becomes more difficult in the water. As with any obstacle, researchers are constantly overcoming conditions that cannot be changed, adapting to better research techniques across ambitious environments.

Overcoming the Challenges of Designing for Aquatic Camera Technology

Zackery Rago’s recent appearance in Netflix documentary Chasing Coral features him examining an underwater camera built by View Into The Blue, a company based in Boulder, Colorado where Rago is a technician. The camera was created for the film crew in the documentary, Exposure Labs, to take time-lapse footage of the bleaching of coral reefs.


Image courtesy of View Into The Blue.


View Into The Blue builds underwater webcams which stream live to the Internet. They’re uniquely designed for use underwater, with features like windshield wipers, which is what attracted Chasing Coral filmmaker Jeff Orlowski. VITB built a custom camera for the documentary, which addresses the unique challenges of designing for aquatic tech.

A particular challenge for the underwater cameras used in Chasing Coral is the algae and microorganisms that accumulated on the device enclosures within hours, reducing visibility and decreasing viewer experience. VITB’s cameras utilize CleanSweep to wipe debris away with no maintenance. Cameras come in a variety configurable models. They also make underwater microphones, IP-controllable LED arrays in white and RGB, integrated acoustic telemetry, side sonar, instrument integration, and devices for data acquisition.


Coral bleaching in American-Samoa. Image  © XL Catlin Seaview Survey - The Ocean Agency - Richard Vevers


VITB’s cameras offer wireless connectivity even at remote locations (as many ocean and wildlife cameras are placed far from civilization) that can be controlled from a connected device, as well as technology that extends network connectivity.

You can watch livestreams from View Into The Blue on their live feeds page.

Moving Laboratory Science Under the Sea with Aquatic Robotics

Researchers in Nova Scotia are carrying out tests typically relegated to the laboratory on the ocean floor, thanks to robotic arms controlled from a Canadian Coast Guard vessel that hovers on the water above. On the ocean floor, there are sponges made of "glass" that need to be placed inside a special chamber that measures respiration. The prospect of doing such measurements on the ocean floor, rather than moving the fragile sponges to a lab on land, is an attractive one.

“It’s never been done. These are new chambers specifically designed for this project. These sponges are globally unique, so on this particular species, this is all new information,” says Ellen Kenchington, an ecologist with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The hydraulic arms are capable of extremely precise and delicate movement, allowing them to carefully handle the sea sponges and perform measurements on the ocean floor, measuring the water both before and after they’ve spent time in the chamber. 

ROPOS, a Victoria, British Columbia company provides both technicians and the remotely-operated vehicle responsible for the underwater measurements.

Supervisor Vincent Auger says that the seven-function manipulators are operated by a technician onboard who is guided by underwater cameras. “We are able to control the arm to the point where you could write your name on a piece of paper with it,” Auger claims.

ROPOS, however, costs $25,000 per day which makes it a costly endeavor.


Image courtesy of ROPOS.