A delicate dinghy that grows longer than a blue whale, colorful gardens of ancient coral teeming with life, towering rock vents spewing warm, mineral-rich water – the deep sea is home to amazing animals and habitats.
High-definition, or HD, cameras on MBARI’s remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) have recorded thousands of hours of video helping the institute’s research team unravel the mysteries of the largest living space, but the least explored, of the Earth.
Today, a collaboration between MBARI and DeepSea Power & Light has provided the tools to capture video in 4K ultra high definition (UHD) resolution thousands of meters below the ocean surface.
“Seeing the rapid adoption of 4K imagery and recognizing the scientific value the increased resolution brings to our research team, MBARI began evaluating opportunities to upgrade the HD camera systems on our ROVs to 4K in 2018. “explained MBARI electrical engineer Mark Chaffey. “The new MxD SeaCam we developed with DeepSea Power & Light captures life on the high seas in stunning detail.”
Video is a valuable and unique resource at MBARI.
In 34 years of deep sea research, MBARI ROVs have logged more than 5,800 dives. Research groups at the institute tap into an associated archive of more than 27,600 hours of video to learn more about the deep sea. Video is also important for education and awareness. Images and video recorded by ROVs Ventana, Tiburon (now retired) and Doc Ricketts are shared on MBARI’s social media platforms and have been featured in publications, productions and exhibitions around the world.
“At MBARI, we annotate all video captured by our ROVs and continuously archive these findings in our one-of-a-kind Video Annotation and Reference Systems, or VARS. As we accumulate these very valuable details, the big picture is starting to emerge more clearly and enrich our understanding of different communities of deep-sea animals, the environments they inhabit, and how things can change over time,” explained Nancy Jacobsen Stout. , head of the video lab. “And, of course, these stunning images are simply mesmerizing and we love to share these inspirations with the public.”
The last major advancement in MBARI’s video imaging capabilities was over 20 years ago when the institute switched to recording in an HD television format – 1080i or 1920 by 1080 pixel resolution. The higher quality has allowed researchers to better document deep-sea animals and environments. As video imaging around the world now shifts to 4K resolutions, MBARI saw an exciting opportunity to develop a camera system that takes full advantage of resolution, color rendition, dynamic range and frame rates. higher than this format offers. The team selected the broadcast-quality 4K UHD format with a resolution of 3840 by 2160 pixels, exactly four times the resolution of HD.
MBARI’s mission is to advance marine science and technology to understand the evolution of the ocean and to disseminate this knowledge to the community at large. Partnering with a well-established commercial vendor helps MBARI transfer technology innovations to the global market. In October 2019, MBARI contracted DeepSea Power & Light to develop the new 4K underwater camera. DeepSea Power & Light has extensive experience with pressure glass camera domes and understands the challenges of developing a camera for MBARI’s deep diving ROVs.
“Creating a new, high-quality deep-sea video camera system presents significant technical challenges and risks!” Chaffey said.
Designing a 4K deep sea camera required careful thought about operating in extreme conditions – the deep sea is an unforgiving, cold and overwhelmingly pressured environment. Since MBARI’s ROVs perform hundreds of dives each year, reliability was also important.
Achieving the camera’s performance goals required a large precision optical dome port that was larger than any commercial housing available for those depths at the time. The DeepSea Power & Light team had the expertise and the simulation, fabrication and validation tools needed to successfully produce a new deep-sea enclosure.
DeepSea Power & Light enlisted Fathom Imaging to help with the optical design, which was essential to take full advantage of the capabilities of the 4K format. To achieve high-resolution, low-distortion image targets across the camera’s telephoto and focal range, Fathom Imaging was tasked with designing a bespoke optical adapter.
“Each partner’s area of specialization addressed the three main technical challenges: packaging the camera, designing the necessary optical lenses, and designing the deep sea pressure housing and glass dome systems,” Chaffey explained.
Over the past couple of years, the camera’s ambitious design has taken shape. The result of this collaboration is the MxD SeaCam, a one-of-a-kind 4K underwater imaging system.
The MxD SeaCam camera was first deployed on MBARI’s ROV Ventana for a series of test dives in the fall of 2021. The camera is now actively used for science operations on MBARI’s other ROV, the Doc Ricketts. Early expeditions using the MxD SeaCam have already proven successful, providing high quality video to fuel MBARI research.
“4K gives us much higher resolution to study the structure of the animals we study, especially transparent species,” said MBARI senior scientist Bruce Robison, who studies life in midwater. Many of the creatures that live in this vast expanse of water deep below the surface and high above the seabed are notoriously difficult to film. “4K allows us to see in great detail how these animals are put together and how all the individual pieces work, individually and together.”
During an expedition in November, Robison and his team had the chance to record the rarely seen giant ghost jelly (Stygiomedusa gigantea) in 4K. This amazing species measures over a meter (about three feet) in diameter and trails oral arms 10 meters (33 feet) long. It is too large to collect, so researchers depend on video observations to study its natural history, behavior and ecology.
Kyra Schlining, Senior Research Technician at MBARI’s Video Lab, joined Robison on her expedition. She recalls the encounter with Stygiomedusa: “When we scanned it up close, it looked like the outside of the bell and the arms were covered in nematocysts. These details become more apparent with 4K. The level to which we can zoom is truly amazing.”
In addition to offering detailed insight into deep-sea animals and habitats, MBARI scientists are excited about how the higher resolution and powerful zoom capabilities can enhance their research. “With high resolution, we can stand at a distance, further away from the animal we’re investigating, than was the case with our old HD cameras,” Robison said. “It’s important because our closeness to animals can bias their behavior, so the further away we can be and see clearly, the better.”
The MxD SeaCam offers an exciting new level of visibility on the high seas. The images captured by this camera promise to advance not only research, but also education. Images are the most powerful way to communicate the beauty and importance of the seabed and to share scientific knowledge and discoveries made there with the public.
MBARI’s 4K video will be featured in an upcoming exhibit by the institute’s education and conservation partner, the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Into the Deep: Exploring Our Undiscovered Ocean will transport visitors to the greatest living space on Earth, telling stories about the creatures that live there and the people and discoveries that illuminate the last unexplored stretches of our planet. Opening on April 9, 2022, the new exhibit will bring visitors face-to-face with deep-sea animals and feature MBARI video, including new never-before-seen 4K footage.
Video: Bioluminescence: Living Light in the Deep Sea
Provided by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
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