Seeing into the dark depths of the ocean is impossible without specialised equipment built to withstand the high-pressure deep-sea environment. CSIRO engineers and technicians have developed a camera system to capture images from these unexplored environments.

The challenge

Seeing what lies beneath

The deep ocean is alive with abundant biodiversity and resources that are impossible to visualise without specialised equipment that can be deployed from ships or autonomously.

The Deep Tow Camera System is deployed from ships to peer deep below the ocean surface to collect information about the deep sea

We already know that around Australia and off the continental shelf, for example at Tasmania's spectacular sea mounts, our deep sea is flourishing with important biodiversity.

Being able to monitor and report on marine ecosystem biodiversity is important in the face of changing environmental conditions caused by human activities.

Our response

Camera system reveals new deep sea detail

Our ocean engineering and technology experts have developed a specialised deep sea camera system to capture never before seen vision of the ocean and sea floor to support marine research.

Whilst camera systems have been used for deep sea research in the past technological advances have created new opportunities to improve the quality of information cameras can gather.

Our deep towed camera system can withstand the harsh deep sea environment whilst maintaining stability to return spectacular imagery providing scientists with a unique view of deep sea biodiversity.

The camera is equipped with a paired digital still camera system and high definition video capable of taking high resolution video and photos of the sea floor. A forward looking camera, long range altimeter and position monitoring beacon assist with the platform's piloting to ensure that it does not come into contact with the obstacles on the sea bed.

The system is also equipped with a CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) which can sample deep ocean water giving scientists an accurate picture of the temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen levels in the environments being studied.

When deployed on the RV Investigator, a six kilometre fibre optic cable is used to relay information about the deep sea environment in real time to navigators and scientists.

Deep tow camera system specs:

  • paired still cameras with synchronised shutter control and coupled xenon flash
  • high definition video camera – live HDSDI video steam and surface recording
  • forward looking camera for obstacle avoidance
  • four LED lights with remote power control
  • high resolution pressure sensor
  • 300m range altimeter
  • CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) and dissolved oxygen sensor system
  • two 4.5 mW sizing lasers.

The results

A leap forward on deep sea biodiversity knowledge

By taking advantage of new camera technologies paired with our unique ocean engineering and technical capabilities, we have produced an unparalleled stereo camera system that changes the way we can see the deep ocean.

This means that research carried out to understand deep sea ecology can contribute to meeting Australia's goals of conversing marine biodiversity across our ocean ecosystems, including the deep sea.

The deep tow camera system can also be used to explore previously under- or non-explored environments, shedding new light on previously unknown worlds.

CSIRO O&A - Understanding the deep sea

[Music plays and an image appears of an aerial view of the ocean and then text appears: Engineering and Technology, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, How can we learn more about the deep ocean?]

[Image changes to show Dr Alan Williams talking to the camera in an office and then working on a computer and text appears: Dr Alan Williams, Deep Water Marine Ecologist]

Dr Alan Williams: I’m a Marine Ecologist working mainly in the deep sea, focussing on the impacts of human activities on those ecosystems and doing research that’s highly reliant on camera based technology.

[Images move through of Alan talking to the camera, the camera system on the boat, Alan pointing to a sea floor image on a computer screen, and then talking with a colleague]

We, in the past, have developed very good camera systems but technological advances in the last decade give many opportunities to improve that system and here at CSIRO we have the capability to bring it all together.

[Images move through of a high res camera, and then Matthew Sherlock talking to the camera and text appears: Matthew Sherlock, Research Group Leader, Instruments and Electronics]

Matthew Sherlock: New high res cameras like this one have opened up the opportunity for new levels of detail achieved through a paired camera configuration.

[Images move through of colleagues looking at a computer screen, measuring the diameter of a glass dish, and then computer screen diagrams]

Andrew Filisetti: Our team draws on 20 years of experience in the mechanical engineering design field to deliver bespoke scientific equipment.

[Image changes to show Andrew Filisetti talking to the camera and then images move through of marine equipment being deployed, and an image of the sea floor on the computer and text appears: Andrew Filisetti, Mechanical Engineer]

These have high flexibility, stability and robustness just to deal with the harsh environment sub-sea and to maintain the accurate calibration required.

[Images move through of diagrams of the camera system, Jacques Malan talking to the camera in an office, and then working on a computer and text appears: Jacques Malan, Electronics Engineer]

Jacques Malan: Given the bespoke nature of this video camera system we have a number of components that’s not available, so we’ll have to design that.

[Images move through of a diagram on the computer screen, soldering on a circuit board, Jacques looking through a microscope, Jacques talking to the camera, and a diagram on a screen again]

And to do that we handpick electronic components we design a printed circuit board and hand solder all that components on to it and all of this has to fit within the physical constraints of the mechanical design. 

[Images move through of colleagues looking at engineering drawings and talking]

Chris Blood: We work to engineering drawings, high specifications and tolerances.

[Image changes to show Chris Blood talking to the camera and then images move through of the manufacturing of the components of the camera and text appears: Chris Blood, Manager, Advanced Machining]

We manufacture science platforms, everything from welding of the frames through to machining of the pressure cases which have to be precise due to their depth rating.

[Image changes to show a male looking at a piece of the camera, and then images move through of the camera being put into an underwater housing]

Matthew Sherlock: The integration of cameras and components into underwater housings takes one of our mechatronics engineers around about two weeks to complete.

[Images move through of two males holding the camera system in a swimming pool and submerging it completely below the water and then the image shows the equipment on the pool floor]

We run the stereo camera system through a photometric calibration process prior to deployment.

[Image changes to show Matthew talking to the camera]

Now that the camera system build is complete we’re preparing to take the platform out on RV Investigator for it’s first deployment.

[Images move through of two males seated and looking at a bank of computer screens and then the camera zooms in on the computer screens they are looking at]

For this trip we’re taking E & T technicians and engineers who will operate the system and take care of any problems that might arise.

[Image changes to show Frances Cooke talking to the camera and text appears: Frances Cooke, Marine Geophysicist]

Frances Cooke: So, we’re going back down to the Southern Sea Mount.

[Image changes to show a map of the Southern Sea Mount on the computer screen]

It’s a site we’ve already been to before.

[Image changes to show a rear and then profile view of Frances working on the computer and then the image changes to show a simulation of the towed camera on a computer screen]

My role is to be involved in the navigational planning of the towed camera system.

[Image changes to show the video footage from the camera showing fish on the sea bed]

So, it’s important that the system is towed at a consistent depth above the sea bed, so that we’re avoiding any obstacles, and we’re delivering to the scientists the vision that they need.

[Image changes to show Matthew in the operations room with colleagues looking at the computers and talking to the camera]

Matthew Sherlock: Here in the operations room, live video data from the camera platform is delivered via a six kilometre fibre optic cable. The operators use two views, one of obstacle avoidance and one survey view which provides the scientific data.

[Images move through of Franzis Althaus looking at video footage of the towed camera on the computer screen and then the image changes to show Franzis talking to the camera and text appears: Franzis Althaus, Benthic Ecologist]

Franzis Althaus: The beauty of having a stereo camera system means that we can define the field of view and with that we can turn counter organisms into population densities.

[Images move through of a photograph of samples on the sea bed and then the image changes to show Alan talking to the camera]

Dr Alan Williams: Our research outcomes map very strongly on to Australia’s national and international obligations for conserving marine biodiversity

[Images move through of encircled photographs of the research process appearing and forming into a linked oval shape around the CSIRO logo and headings appear across the circles: science challenge, modelling, design, fabrication, integration, planning, deploy, operate, data analysis, system evolution]

and they’re only possible because of the breadth of knowledge and skills that we’re able to harness within CSIRO and the vertical integration that exists within the ENT group.

[Music plays and text appears on a blue screen: Interviewees, Dr Alan Williams, Matthew Sherlock Andrew Filisetti, Jacques Malan, Chris Blood, Frances Cooke, Franzis Althaus]

[Text appears: For more info csiro.au/deeptowcamera]

[CSIRO logo and text appears: CSIRO Australia’s innovation catalyst]

Deep towed camera system

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