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Advanced monitoring of plankton using AI technology receives major funding boost

26 September 2022

The new automated system will enable a step change in the frequency and range of marine plankton measurements.
Dinoflagellates by Claire Widdicombe
Dinoflagellates by Claire Widdicombe

Scientists at Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) are on the cusp of achieving a radically improved understanding of how environmental changes are affecting plankton, the microscopic organisms at the foundation of the marine food chain which also play a vital role in generating oxygen for the planet.

As part of a £6.6 million Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funding package for UK environmental science equipment, PML has been awarded £651k for its bespoke ‘Automated, in situ Plankton Imaging and Classification System’ (APICS).

Designed for remote deployment in the Western Channel Observatory (the marine biodiversity reference site in the Western English Channel), the new system uses two state-of-the-art submersible devices (an Imaging FlowCytobot and a Plankton Imager) to gather images of plankton at varying sizes that can then be automatically classified using machine learning software.  

This innovative, automated technique will radically improve the frequency, duration and range of plankton monitoring, which is currently carried out manually by scientists in situ.

Furthermore, through the use of renewable energy to power the equipment, and the reduced reliance on research vessels, the project supports the ambition of moving towards net zero oceanography.

Dr James Clark, Marine Ecosystem Modeller at Plymouth Marine Laboratory said:

“For the first time in the world, APICS will enable autonomous, long-term, broad size-spectrum measurements of plankton to be made at sub-daily time scales. In addition to the two camera systems, this will be made possible through machine learning software, which will permit the data to be collected and processed at speeds which are orders of magnitude faster than manual processing procedures. This will allow sub-daily changes - for example, relating to day-night or tidal cycles - to be resolved while also dramatically reducing operating costs.”

The APICS system will be operational in early 2023, adding to the set of existing equipment that makes up the Western Channel Observatory to create a unique system for studying relationships between physical, chemical, and biological variables.

It will enable PML scientists to study trends in plankton abundance in fine detail, leading to an improved understanding of plankton community dynamics, and the relationship between plankton and marine ecosystems as a whole.

Regarding the NERC funding announcement, Dr Iain Williams, Director of Strategic Partnerships at NERC said:

“The UK environmental science sector is key to helping us understand and adapt to climate change, and to achieving the UK’s target of net zero emissions by 2050. NERC is strongly committed to supporting our environmental scientists in addressing these challenges.”

“This investment marks a major upgrade of national environmental science infrastructure, giving researchers access to the tools they need to drive forward their research.”


Related information

UKRI Capital Funding announcement

Western Channel Observatory