Skip to content


PML tests new plankton imaging tech - see the plankton photos it captured!

1 February 2024

Our scientists took our new Imaging FlowCytobot down to the local Millbay Marina last week for our first-ever test of the equipment in real sea conditions. Despite the murky waters, some fantastic images of various plankton species came through. Be the first to see what microscopic beasties it found... 

Above: PML's Instrument and Data Technician Jani Pewter configuring the Imaging FlowCytobot to wirelessly stream data back to a laptop, where the plankton images can be viewed in real-time 

PML’s Imaging FlowCytobot (IFCB) was manufactured by McLane Research Laboratories in the US. It is an ultra-advanced piece of equipment that will be used in long-term, autonomous deployments at sea – imaging microscopic plankton off the south coast of the UK. The images will be classified back at PML and used to track changes in the composition of plankton communities in the English Channel. 

Purchased using Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) Capital funding, it forms part of a new Automated, in situ Plankton Imaging and Classification System (APICS) which will be deployed at our L4 monitoring site, where it will join a suite of complementary state-of-the-art scientific instruments. 

Scientists are trialing the equipment ahead of its deployment in the Spring. Previously, it has only been used in the laboratory, where it has been processing samples of sea water from L4 and imaging the plankton found in those samples. 

Following successful trials in the laboratory, the team has now moved on to the next stage - operation in real sea conditions - and as such, took the IFCB down to our local Millbay Marina for a controlled test deployment. 

website-(23).jpgAbove: PML scientists and technologists load the IFCB onto a truck to take down to the Marina 

website-(22).jpgAbove: Marine technologists Kieran and Ross secure the IFCB before lowering it into the water 

website-(21).jpgAbove: The IFCB is configured to wirelessly stream data back to a laptop where the images can be viewed in real-time 

website-(24).jpgAbove: the IFCB is dropped below the water to start collecting data 

website-(20).jpgAbove: APICS project lead Dr James Clark with Claire Widdicombe, who is the IFCB technical lead, overseeing the operation 

website-(19).jpgAbove: Claire and the team analysing the data being collected from the IFCB 

The IFCB was deployed at Millbay Marina for 72 hours, during which time it collected more than 18,000 images. Despite some murky water conditions, it took some fantastic images of the local plankton, some of which you can see below. 


IFCB technical lead Claire Widdicombe commented: 

“The images show quite a lot of detritus, but also numerous different phytoplankton species. I’m delighted with the results from the first real test for our IFCB!” 

“What’s so special about the IFCB is its ability to autonomously image plankton across a broad size range, covering <10 μm to 150 μm [micrometres]. The scale is comparable to the diameter of a human hair. Typically, to collect plankton data, we would need to take samples of seawater into the lab, and then manually photograph and identify plankton with a microscope - but the IFCB does this for us, autonomously imaging plankton at sea. The data is then wirelessly sent back to the laboratory, where organisms can be automatically identified using machine learning models.” 

“The IFCB will collect data continuously in-situ at our L4 monitoring site and will allow us to monitor changes in plankton communities on hourly time scales, as compared with the weekly time scales we are restricted to at present.” 

APICS project lead, Dr James Clark, said of the deployment: 

“This has been a crucial step – and a successful step – in the journey to deploying our plankton imaging equipment later this year. The IFCB will be joined by a second plankton camera called the ‘Plankton Imager’, which is being manufactured by Plankton Analytics in the UK. The combination of instruments will allow us to autonomously image in-situ plankton that range from 10 μm up to 20 mm in size. To the best of my knowledge, having a single autonomous platform image such a broad size range this will be a world first. Both cameras will be suspended below a new, bespoke buoy which is being supplied by Hydrosphere UK

Plankton sit at the base of the marine food web and, despite their small size, ultimately support all other forms of life in the ocean. The data from APICS will allow us to better monitor the health of plankton communities in UK waters and will support the work of plankton researchers around the world.” 

c61f98dc-775f-4a2c-aee3-ff473b075db7.jpgAbove: Claire, James and Digital Marine Biologist Dr Saskia Ruhl delighted with the results from the first test deployment

Related information

APICS (Automated, in situ Plankton Imaging and Classification System) project 

Staff spotlight: Claire Widdicombe 

Staff spotlight: James Clark 

Share this story: