The value of coral reef ecosystems can hardly be overstated and neither can the threats they face on a warming planet. Now there’s a new undersea imaging technology to help oceanographers and researchers understand what’s happening beneath the sea, because they’re able to more clearly see object color and structure.
The breakthrough comes from Israel, where engineer and oceanographer Derya Akkaynak developed a new algorithm specifically for underwater photography that offsets the weaknesses of existing imaging rooted in land-based physics.
“An underwater photo is the equivalent of one taken in air, but covered in thick, colored fog,” explains Akkaynak in a recent paper presented with Tali Treibitz, her postdoctoral research advisor at the University of Haifa and its Leon Charney School of Marine Sciences. Blues and greens dominate the images, and natural light that filters through the water is dispersed in ways that create a cloudy haze.
The imaging available to underwater photographers doesn’t lend itself to powerful computing, and it wasn’t advancing the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning for the greatest benefit to scientists who often work with large data sets. So Akkaynak, who is now working in the United States at Florida Atlantic University (FAU), spent four years developing a new algorithm for processing the marine images.
Called Sea-Thru, it basically – but remarkably – removes the water. A coral reef looks as if it were a rock formation on land and its hues are more true, which is a benefit when assessing the health of the specimen. Sea-Thru also makes it easy to see fish and other species that are living in and near the coral, which has historically been a labor-intensive process because humans do it manually.
This “will help boost underwater research at a time when our oceans are under increasing stress from pollution, overfishing, and climate change,” the paper authors said. Better still, it promotes the science in ways that Photoshop or other image editing programs simply can’t achieve for advanced purposes.
“Researchers in health, biomedical science, and various engineering fields often do not receive sufficient training in using the most powerful artificial intelligence and deep learning approaches,” explains FAU, which just announced a U.S. National Science Foundation grant for AI that includes its Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. “This is because these hardware and software platforms rarely are part of the information technology resources available for researchers outside the field of computer science.”
Akkaynak’s own work draws from a rich background in multiple disciplines. She began her career in aerospace engineering in Turkey, and continued at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in aeronautics before moving into doctoral work in Mechanical Engineering and Oceanography there.
The Sea-Thru method is under patent through SeaErra, a subsidiary of the Haifa-affiliated Carmel Ltd. A short video of Sea-Thru applied to video, below, features images beneath Lake Tanganyika captured by Dr. Alex Jordan of the Max Planck Institute.