Designing the Future

Emerging technologies to explore and describe midwater biodiversity

Alex Ingle / SOI
Oct. 13 2019

Of all the Earth’s habitable zones, the deep midwater environment is probably the least understood. Much of deep-sea biology is focused on the seafloor, where a global community of researchers yield new discoveries on a consistent basis. In contrast, the massive expanse of ocean that lies between the surface and the bottom, or the ocean’s midwaters, is often ignored. This is because navigating undersea vehicles like ROV’s and manned submersibles is extremely challenging in its own right, and there are limited tools available for sampling delicate specimens. As a result, many gelatinous animals in the midwater (jellyfish, siphonophores, salps, etc.) remain frustratingly undescribed. 

Dr Brennan Phillips (Principal Investigator, University of Rhode Island) and his team prepare ROV SuBastian before to the first dive.Alex Ingle / SOI

This expedition is the first of two research cruises aimed at advancing the tools available to deep-sea scientists to explore and describe midwater biology. A multidisciplinary team comprised of four institutions (University of Rhode Island, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Harvard University, and the City University of New York/Baruch College) have been working for the past year in partnership with the Schmidt Ocean Institute to develop and integrate new visualization and sampling techniques onto ROV SuBastian. Our ambitious goal is to demonstrate a technology-based workflow for extracting morphological, behavioral, and genetic information on the delicate and rare denizens of the deep midwater environment. Along the way, we expect to make advances in the fields of 3D scanning and reconstruction, flow visualization, and bioinspired robotics.

In the Library of the R/V Falkor, the science team and crew have a pre-dive meeting to discuss logistics.Alex Ingle / SOI

Beyond Invention – Real World Testing
Our first expedition is largely focused on the integration and operation of MBARI’s DeepPIV (particle image velocimetry) system, an instrument that has been in development for the past four years.
The Bioinspiration Lab, led by Kakani Katija, has been working closely with scientists and engineers to develop technologies that enable the study of animals in the deep sea, particularly the ocean’s midwaters. Using robotic platforms like ROVs and imaging tools, we hope to learn how elusive animals are uniquely adapted for their environment, and how these adaptations can be reverse engineered for other engineering applications.

A screengrab of the the DeepPIV’s laser scanning an invertebrate. As ROV SuBastian cruises through the midwater, pilots and technicians take every opportunity to test the new technology.SOI / ROV SuBastian

For this Falkor expedition, we have integrated MBARI’s DeepPIV instrument onto ROV SuBastian to conduct 3D visualizations of midwater invertebrates. DeepPIV uses a laser to illuminate a thin sheet of water, mucus, or gelatinous tissue, and captures the illuminated sheet using a dedicated camera. We also use this instrument to study animal kinematics and the way animals use and modify water flow to their advantage. Because of the rigorous resolution requirements of these measurements, collecting quality data (especially in midwate) is very challenging. For example, prime DeepPIV targets include giant larvaceans, whose bodies are approximately 2 cm wide. While operating DeepPIV, an ROV pilot needs to center this tiny animal (approximately the size of a human pinkie finger) that may be hundreds of meters deep onto a 1 mm-thick laser sheet.

In addition to this effort, URI and Harvard University are taking steps towards the creation of a 2nd-generation RAD Sampler- RAD stands for “Rotary Actuated Dodecahedron.” This origami-inspired device was first deployed in 2017 on MBARI’s ROV Ventana, to demonstrate its ability to rapidly encapsulate delicate midwater organisms. The geometry of the RAD is quite complex, but its operation is very simple- making it an ideal system for integrating more advanced devices such as cameras and tissue sampling systems. Once an animal is captured inside the RAD Sampler, we hope to rapidly gather further information about the morphology (shape) of the specimen, along with tissue samples for genomic analysis. Combined with the rich dataset that DeepPIV can deliver, there is potential for describing new species that are simply too delicate to bring to the surface.

Dale Graves (Manufacturing Group Lead, MBARI) and Alana Sherman (Electrical Engineering Group Leader, MBARI) inspect ROV SuBastian with Adam Wetmore of the SOI ROV team on R/V Falkor’s aft deck.Alex Ingle / SOI

Just The Start
After two days onshore mobilizing and integrating our equipment on SuBastian, we have had two successful dives off the coast of Oahu. The success is due largely in part to the dedicated pilots and engineers on the ROV Subastian team who embraced tackling this challenging operation. We have several more exciting days ahead, and then it is time to head back to the lab – to prepare for our next, extended expedition in late 2020 onboard the R/V Falkor. Stay tuned!

Kakani Katija (Co – Principal Investigator, MBARI), Jason Rodriguez (ROV Team) and Cody Peyres (ROV Team) watch the DeepPIV in action on the many monitors in R/V Falkor’s Control Room.Alex Ingle / SOI

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