Expanding Access to Global Deep-Sea Exploration

In August, a small group of professionals met at BIOS, having recently worked together on a study, and a subsequent publication, that spoke to fundamental imbalances and inequities in the accessibility of deep-sea technologies. Both the study and the publication were led by Katy Croff Bell, founder of the Ocean Discovery League (ODL), in collaboration with 28 other institutes and organizations, including BIOS. Tim Noyes, BIOS research specialist (center, back) was among 17 study participants to receive a Maka Niu, the ODL’s low-cost, off-the-shelf platform they see as a step in the right direction. As part of a larger study funded by a U.K. Darwin Plus grant, Noyes is sending the instrument through some rigorous field conditions, attaching it to a Deep BRUVS (Baited Remote Underwater Video System) that will bring back information about the biodiversity of Bermuda’s deep-sea fishes. Photo credit: Robert Zuill

A recent publication in the scientific journal Frontiers highlights some of the biggest challenges confronting modern deep-sea exploration, namely that technologies are expensive to develop, purchase, and deploy. This, in turn, leads to an imbalance in who can access, utilize, and benefit from these tools, creating longer-term inequities among early career engineers, practitioners, and scientists who might benefit from technical training opportunities.

BIOS was among the 28 institutes and organizations that contributed to the publication and the study it reports on. Leading the study was deep-sea explorer and ocean engineer, Katy Croff Bell who, in 2021, founded the Ocean Discovery League (ODL) to address these challenges through the development of low-cost deep-sea technologies, automated data analysis tools, and ocean exploration capacity building with underrepresented communities.

“The high-resolution video that we captured from these cameras is an incredible resource for engaging students in deep-sea biodiversity, bringing to life all of the unique adaptations that creatures have for survival in extreme environments,” said Kaitlin Noyes, BIOS director of engagement and community outreach. “We are delighted to have been selected to trial these technologies, build educational resources alongside project collaborators, and use these tools to engage Bermudian students with deep-sea science in their own backyard.”

During Tim Noyes’ collaboration with Beneath the Waves (a project that also involves partnering with the Bermuda Government Department of Environment and Natural Resources; the University of Rhode Island, and the Waitt Institute) their cameras have captured some pretty incredible footage, including large squid and eels tying themselves in tight knots. This trip was full of smooth-hound sharks (like the ones shown here), lots of brittle stars, and a solitary green eel.

At the heart of the study was a partnership with 20 marine professionals from around the world, representing diverse expertise from fields including conservation, diving, education, engineering, indigenous knowledge, science, and traditional navigation. Through a collaborative process known as “participatory design,” they provided detailed feedback on the features and capabilities required by potential users of two new technologies: an online automated video analysis platform and an in-water imaging and sensor platform called Maka Niu.

“Inclusion is critical,” Bell said. “The collaborative design process ensures that systems and analysis tools truly meet the needs of local teams by co-developing them with those groups.”

Automating Analysis for Deep-Sea Discovery

The video analysis platform will rely on an extensive database of underwater imagery combined with computer algorithms to automatically classify marine species and features. The benefit of this platform is that users won’t be required to have prior computer programming experience. During the study, feedback was gathered through guided video interviews with open-ended questions relating to accuracy and technical requirements, end-user communities, and interface features.

Specific suggestions provided by interviewees included: providing different interfaces and functionalities for different user groups (e.g., classroom students vs. conservation professionals vs. policymakers); combining multiple data sets, such as video images and environmental data; and availability on both desktop and mobile devices with limited internet access.

This valuable feedback is currently being incorporated in the development of a prototype by a team of academic institutions, non-profit organizations, and U.S. federal agencies with support from the National Geographic Society/Microsoft AI for Earth and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

A Platform for Participatory Science

Maka Niu was conceived in early 2020 by researchers at ODL, the non-profit Polynesian Voyaging Society (Hawaii, U.S.), and Oceanic Labs, an ocean technology group founded by a researcher from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Massachusetts, U.S.) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; Massachusetts, U.S.).

Loosely translated as “coconut eye” in Hawaiian, the Maka Niu was originally intended to serve as an educational tool. However, feedback from study participants revealed it had the potential to be utilized by a broader range of end-users for additional applications, including conservation, exploration, and research.

Participants recommended that Maka Niu prioritize the integration of sensors that collect depth, salinity, and temperature measurements, as well as high-definition visual images. They also suggested that Maka Niu systems link to a user-friendly database; withstand deployments to depths of hundreds to thousands of meters; and deploy from multiple platforms, including buoys, remotely operated vehicles, or small boats.

“Today, Maka Niu is a low-cost, modular imaging and sensor platform that leverages off-the-shelf commodity hardware along with the efficiencies of mass production to decrease the price per unit and allow more global communities to explore previously unseen regions of the ocean,” said Daniel Novy, a former research scientist with MIT Media Lab who collaborated with Bell on the initial design concept.

Creating platforms with off-the-shelf hardware is particularly important for Bell and the study’s co-authors, who understand that lowering the cost and increasing the accessibility of ocean exploration systems is essential to capacity development. Multiple participants agreed, saying the Maka Niu, which costs under $1,000 USD, provided an opportunity to explore and sample in new conditions and locations specifically because there wasn’t a huge financial risk involved.

“Other low-cost ocean exploration systems still cost between $10,000 to $50,000 USD each, Bell said. That is certainly not everyone’s definition of ‘low-cost.’ Our goal is to create a deep-sea system that is truly affordable, made with easy-to-deploy and operate components.”

At left, Wade controls the acoustic transceiver unit for the deployment and recovery of the Maka Niu at Challenger Bank, a seamount southeast of Bermuda. At right, she sits in the shade during a hot fieldwork session, and the moment also presents a great opportunity to take a photo of the Maka Niu to help convey that it really is low-tech, low-logistics, and designed to be an open-source platform that others can build on and modify to suit their specific needs. As the study notes, “by including partners in the engineering process and making designs and data openly available, we hope that a new model of technology capacity building will emerge, leading to a locally-led community of practice that eliminates the dependency on outsider expertise or technical support and development.” Photo credit: Veta Wade

Mission Maka Niu

In 2021, 17 Maka Niu systems were constructed for testing in 11 locations worldwide, including BIOS and Montserrat, an island in the Caribbean southeast of Puerto Rico. The flashlight-sized platforms, designed to operate to depths of 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) were equipped with cameras and environmental sensors to measure depth, temperature, and location via a GPS unit. Based on early feedback, users can wirelessly program and modify missions in the field, access data and video on devices with limited Wi-Fi capabilities, and contribute images to an open-source web platform. This last suggestion allows users to make annotations on the video and photo assets, and retain autonomy over when to show higher accuracy identification vs. broader taxonomic levels (phylum/genes) vs. lower accuracy identification at finer levels (genus/species).

“The goals of our testing phase included gathering feedback on the user experience; data on the sensor and camera system accuracy; feedback on the camera and sensor system performance at depth and in various environments; and establishing a community among the test users for direct technical support with the Maka Niu unit, as well as career and personal support,” Bell said.

With funding from ODL, educator and ocean activist Veta Wade (left) from Montserrat participated in a week-long professional development course at BIOS, learning how to deploy the Maka Niu for deep ocean observation. Here, Wade attaches the Maka Niu to a Deep BRUVS with assistance from marine biologist Austin Gallagher with Beneath the Waves (U.S.) and BIOS Bermuda Program intern Keagan Woolley. Photo credit: Veta Wade

On August 6, 2022, educator, ocean activist, and speaker Veta Wade arrived at BIOS for a week-long professional development workshop. Wade hails from Montserrat, where she founded Fish ‘N Fins, a non-profit organization that combines fundamental swimming skills, healthy lifestyle habits, novel approaches to blue economy and eco-tourism, and local knowledge about the island’s marine habitats and the global ocean. She is also the recipient of a Darwin Fellowship through the U.K.’s Darwin Initiative, which provides grants for projects that protect biodiversity and build capacity in developing countries.

Wade was a co-author of the Frontiers study and one of the 17 recipients of a Maka Niu. With funding from ODL, she traveled to Bermuda to be trained in the deep deployment of the nascent technology. Joining Kaitlin Noyes and BIOS colleague Tim Noyes, a research specialist and a study collaborator, Wade participated in fieldwork in support of ongoing research into the biodiversity of deep-sea fishes in Bermuda.

“The Bermuda field training was a fantastic example of what collaboration for ocean science monitoring and education in U.K. Overseas Territories could look like when developed from the ground up under the Blue Belt Program,” Wade said. “I’m inspired by this assignment and energized to work with non-scientists like fishers and youth in small islands like Montserrat to develop ways for deep-sea visual data to be collected and communicated by local communities on a global scale. Maka Niu has opened that door for us and I’m excited to see where this work leads in creating new opportunities for the sustainable use of our blue backyard.”

Tim Noyes, who was also a recipient of a Maka Niu, deployed his system in tandem with Wade’s. The Maka Niu eventually reached a depth of 1,755 feet (535 meters) and captured footage of a frenzy (or shiver) of smooth-hound sharks, as well as multiple brittle stars and one brightly colored green eel.

“It was great collaborating with the Ocean Discovery League as part of a global network testing low-cost cameras for deep-sea biodiversity assessments,” he said. “We look forward to testing future sensor packages in Bermuda’s deep-sea and continuing to build capacity within this community of practice.”

Takeaways for Technological Transformation

While video reels of deep-sea sharks indicate success, the publication’s authors point out the Maka Niu project “was the direct result of long-term engagement and relationship building” that involved a “commitment to a shared set of values and the principle of mutual learning.”

In an effort to break down the barriers confronting the field of deep-sea exploration, a series of key findings are presented at the end of the publication. These include: being flexible in priorities; accounting for the financial risk and investment of new technologies; creating opportunities for capacity development by involving end-users in the creation of new technologies; allocating sufficient time and funding throughout all stages of technological development; and following through on long-term commitments.

Maka Niu is just the beginning,” Bell said. “We are taking everything we’ve learned over the past two years of testing and bringing that forward into the next generation of sensors and systems that Ocean Discovery League will be developing. Our goal is a modular system with interchangeable components that can revolutionize low-cost deep ocean exploration worldwide.”