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The New BOBSled Underwater Camera System Records High-Definition Video of the Seafloor

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A new underwater high-definition (HD) video camera system produced by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) made its debut this year, collecting more than 6 hours of HD video footage during field activities in February and March 2013. The Benthic OBservation Sled, or BOBSled, was developed at the Marine Facility of the USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center in Santa Cruz, California, by ocean engineer Gerald Hatcher.

"Benthic" refers to the seafloor, the object of the new system's imaging capabilities. The BOBSled's broadcast-quality HD video of the seafloor allows scientists to observe and identify organisms living there and to ground-truth maps of seafloor materials—such as mud, sand, and boulders.

BOBSled suspended by its tow cable

Above: BOBSled suspended by its tow cable. The tow cable has one single-mode fiber-optic line for video transmission, eight conductors for system power and control, a Kevlar layer for strength, and a urethane jacket for abrasion resistance and water exclusion. This photograph shows the system with its removable nylon front bumper installed and an orange, self-contained CTD (for measuring conductivity [related to salinity], temperature, and depth) zip-tied to the framework just forward of the tow point. Excluding the front bumper, the BOBSled is 1.2 meter (4 feet) long. [larger version]

Seafloor maps are made remotely by interpreting sonar (sound) signals that are bounced off the bottom and—in shallow areas where the water is clear—by incorporating data from aerial and satellite imagery and using lidar (light detection and ranging) to survey the bottom with pulses of laser light. The value of such maps is greatly enhanced by the close-up visual data in seafloor video footage. (Read about other USGS seafloor-imaging activities in "State and Federal Agencies Partner for a Second Year of Seafloor Sampling off Massachusetts" and "Sea Turtles Benefiting from Protected Areas," both in this issue.)

BOBSled has a single camera module housed in a titanium case with a wide-angle acrylic viewport, two 150-watt LED (light-emitting diode) lights, and a pair of lasers aligned to create two red dots 10 centimeters apart in the video image to provide scale. All camera functions, including zoom, white balance, aperture, and video resolution, are adjustable from the surface and in real time during video collection. The towed assembly, or "fish," is connected to the vessel by a 100-meter waterproof cable containing standard conductors for data and power transmission and a single fiber-optic line for the HD video signal. The cable is reinforced with a Kevlar layer for strength and a urethane jacket for water tightness and abrasion resistance. After transmission to the surface, the video is recorded to compact flash-memory cards that are "hot swappable" (they can be replaced without shutting down the computer system), thus creating a robust, solid-state, tapeless workflow. Its moderate size and weight allow the BOBSled to be deployed by hand from a small boat. Its cable length constrains its operation to water depths of 100 meters or less.

BOBSled with its major components labeled

Above: BOBSled with its major components labeled. The system collects high-definition (HD) video images of seafloor as deep as 100 meters and is easily hand deployed from a small boat. The video imagery is viewed and recorded in real time at the surface. The CTD (orange) is an extra instrument "piggybacked" on the BOBSled to measure conductivity (C, related to salinity), temperature (T), and depth (D). The tow point is the attachment point for the tow cable, which contains components for transmitting power and commands to the BOBSled and video signals to the surface. The "control can" sorts out signals from the tow cable, sending them to and from appropriate instruments. The tail fin helps the assembly track smoothly through the water. Red lasers create two red dots 10 centimeters (nearly 4 inches) apart in the video image to provide scale. LED, light-emitting diode. [larger version]

By April 2013, scientists from the USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center had used the new camera system to collect approximately 6 hours (nearly 400 gigabytes) of HD video footage during two field activities. In February 2013, they deployed the system in Hawai‘i from a 31-foot sport-fishing boat, the Alyce C., owned and operated by Joe Reich out of Moloka‘i. Video footage was collected to ground-truth maps of benthic (seafloor) habitat and to evaluate the condition, species diversity, and percentage of coral coverage on reefs near the islands of Lana‘i, Kaho‘olawe, and Maui. In March 2013, the BOBSled was deployed from the 34-foot USGS research vessel Parke Snavely in the Strait of Juan de Fuca to image the seafloor around the mouth of the Elwah River, Washington. This imaging was part of a multiyear research project to monitor the release of material into the Strait of Juan de Fuca by the removal of two sediment-choked dams upstream (http://www.usgs.gov/elwha).

Both field activities demonstrated the high quality of BOBSled's video output. See sample video clips below. The new system can record video footage at up to 1080i/59.94 full raster (1920x1080 pixels), 4:2:2 color, and a bit rate of 280 megabits per second—parameters that produce broadcast quality (or better) output. Each video frame is stamped with a time code synchronized with Global Positioning System (GPS) time, allowing other time-stamped data, such as navigational data, to be associated with the video on a frame-by-frame basis.

Underwater Video Clips from Hawai'i and Washington

To make these video samples reasonably sized for the web, they have been reduced from the original 1920x1080 pixels to 1280x720 pixels and compressed. Therefore, the quality of the individual video frames in these clips is significantly less than in the originals, but the motion video gives a reasonably good impression of the quality that can be achieved by the BOBSled. (Allow about a minute for video clips to load.)

Above: Video collected February 12, 2013, off the Olowalu area on the northwest side of the Hawaiian island of Maui. Seafloor is about 10 meters (30 feet) deep. This setting provides an example of extremely clear tropical water and ambient light. The sea turtle's shell is approximately 1 meter (3 feet) long. (BOBSled is too far above the seafloor for red laser dots to be visible.) See a frame capture (255 KB) from the full-resolution video. Download video: MP4, WEBM, Flash

Above: Video of a "touch and go" (in which the BOBSled is alternately set down on the seafloor and then lifted back into the water column) collected March 8, 2013, on the west side of the Elwah River delta in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Washington. Seafloor is about 30 meters (100 feet) deep. This area has strong currents and a lot of material (suspended sediment) in the water. Two red laser dots near the bottom of the video are 10 centimeters (nearly 4 inches) apart. See a frame capture (272 KB) from the full-resolution video. Download video: MP4, WEBM, Flash

BOBSled's ability to record at a high bit rate enables relatively low compression (the selective removal of data to reduce file size) to be applied to the individual video frames, thus greatly improving the quality of still images captured from the video. For comparison, a contemporary Blue-Ray DVD's HD video stream is transmitted with a bit rate of approximately 30 megabits per second, considerably less than the 280 megabits per second that the BOBSled can record, or even the 100 megabits per second typically employed by BOBSled's users to keep datasets at a manageable size. Because of the human eye's ability to integrate images as they flash by at high speed, the Blue-Ray motion video can appear beautifully sharp, but compression artifacts (distortions of the image caused by compression) become obvious when such video is viewed frame by frame. This is especially true if the video contains a complicated scene with moving objects. The new BOBSled system can record video at a high bit rate if users want to extract high-resolution still images, but it can also record at a much lower bit rate if storage space is of greater concern.

BOBSled is a spin-off from the development, currently underway, of a system for recording HD video of seafloor as deep as 1,000 meters. The deepwater "Big BOBSled" will use two HD camera assemblies identical to the one mounted on BOBSled, and it will have the additional capacity to support a suite of oceanographic sensors and instruments that can be chosen to address specific experimental goals. Big BOBSled is scheduled for its first deployment in fiscal year 2014 (which begins October 1, 2013). Stay tuned!

Related Sound Waves Stories
State and Federal Agencies Partner for a Second Year of Seafloor Sampling off Massachusetts
May / June 2013
Sea Turtles Benefiting from Protected Areas
May / June 2013

Related Websites
Learn more about how our science is supporting the Elwha River Restoration Project

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BOBSled Underwater Camera Records HD Video of Seafloor

Study Shows Sea Turtles Benefit from Protected Areas

Seafloor Sampling off Massachusetts

Life in the Abyss

Coral Gardens: Forests of the Deep - Mission Log

Spring 2013 Monterey Bay Marine GIS User Group Meeting

U.S. Extended Continental Shelf Project Team Receives Superior Honor Awards

USGS a Big Winner in National Association of Government Communicators Awards

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