Home > Explore News > Scientists Test Improved Laser Scanning and Imaging Capabilities for Mapping Mesophotic Coral Communities

Scientists Test Improved Laser Scanning and Imaging Capabilities for Mapping Mesophotic Coral Communities

Published on: 06/05/2024

NCCOS scientists Chris Taylor and Mike Bollinger deploy the AUV over the side of the research vessel using a crane. Credit: Erik Ebert/NOAA

On April 20, 2010, an explosion occurred on BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico, causing loss of life and extensive natural resource injuries. Roughly 134 million gallons of oil spread from the deep ocean to the surface and nearshore environment from Texas to Florida. More than 770 square miles of deep-sea and mesophotic habitats were injured by the spill.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of the Interior, and partners are working to better understand and restore these ecosystems through the implementation of four collaborative projects selected by the Open Ocean Trustee Implementation Group. This includes the Mesophotic and Deep Benthic Communities (MDBC) Mapping, Ground-Truthing, and Predictive Habitat Modeling (MGM) project, which is focused on understanding the distribution and abundance of these communities on the sea floor.

The MDBC MGM team is conducting mapping efforts in both mesophotic (50 to 300 meters deep) and deep benthic (deeper than 300 meters) habitats to identify important areas and distinguish seabed types that will be targeted for further surveys and restoration activities. Recently, NCCOS was joined by partners in tests to evaluate the performance of a new laser/imaging sensor in a REMUS 600 Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). These vehicles, combined with the new laser scanning and imaging sensor, can produce very fine resolution or “micro-bathymetry” models of seabed texture, and indications of attached corals and marine organisms.

The MGM team was joined by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, representatives from the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Panama City, and Voyis, the manufacturer of the new laser scanning and optical imaging sensor. The team developed concepts for AUV surveys that will target mesophotic coral communities and provide ground-truthing data to refine predictive habitat models, which are used to generate maps of where species are likely to occur.

The science team conducted surveys in controlled shallow environments in the northeast Gulf of Mexico to test engineering parameters and calibrate the imaging and laser profiling sensor. Operational surveys were conducted to identify mesophotic benthic community targets 50-60 miles offshore of Panama City, FL in 55 to 70 meters water depth. These field tests helped refine concepts of operations, including: AUV imaging survey design, laser and imaging data management, and anticipating the visualization tools needed to share images and laser profiles with project partners.

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