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Illustration of jellyfish, fish, and corals.

Animation by Justin Tran

Creating an ocean of data with the help of underwater robots

Jan 12, 2024


Drew Pearce

When your mission is monitoring life in the vastness of the ocean, conventional technology can only take you so far.

For three decades, a team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) has been collecting tens of thousands of hours of video data and building an annotation reference system to sift through it all. 

“It's a wealth of information, but nobody outside of our firewalls can access it—at least not yet,” says Dr. Kakani Katija, leader of the Bioinspiration Lab at MBARI, which develops novel instruments and techniques for studying deep sea life

Like a lot of knowledge workers, scientists can become siloed, missing out on potentially useful findings discovered just outside their field of focus. So how might they break through barriers to ensure everyone who could benefit from the data has access to it? That’s the question Katija and her team are trying to answer. 

In search of breakthrough ways to collect, analyze, and share data, they’ve been developing technologies that combine artificial intelligence and robotic underwater vehicles. With help of tools like EyeRIS—which uses lightfield imaging to capture 3D video in deep, dark ocean water—they’re revealing views that have never been possible until now. 

Last July, the Bioinspiration Lab launched FathomNet, an open-source image database designed to make MBARI’s data more broadly available to scientists worldwide. Here’s a glimpse into how Katija and her team plan to spark curiosity, encourage participation, even gamify parts of the project—all in service of saving the oceans.

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