Using AI technology, HABscope can instantly detect a species of phytoplankton that can be detrimental to Irish marine life, fisheries and tourism.
Scientists in Ireland are using a specialist microscope that leverages the power of AI through an attached iPod Touch to detect harmful algae.
Known as HABscope, the microscope is being tested by scientists from the Marine Institute and NUI Galway to detect species of harmful algal blooms (HABs) in the Celtic Sea. It was developed by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and funded by NASA.
The AI software uses data from the microscope to instantly detect Karenia, a particularly harmful phytoplankton. Its dense toxic blooms cause red hues in the water and considerable ecological damage.
Combined with satellite imagery, the HABscope helps scientists get a bird’s eye view of the ocean and detect the blooms early. Specifically designed algorithms calculate the reflectance of light off the ocean surface to help them track the movement of the blooms.
This is the first time that the HABscope has been tested outside of the US.
Sheena Fennell, NUI Galway, using the HABscope on the RV Celtic Voyager. Image: Marine Institute
A woman in a tracksuit leans into a lab bench on-board a research vessel, looking at an AI-equipped microscope with a modified iPod Touch as a display screen.
While most phytoplankton blooms benefit the ecosystem, a small proportion that produce toxins, such as Karenia, are detrimental to marine life, the fishing industry and tourism.
“Using the HABscope alongside satellite technology may help to provide early wide-scale warnings of the presence of harmful algal blooms,” said Catherine Jordan, who is conducting her PhD research in this area at NUI Galway.
“HABs can have an impact on industries such as aquaculture, fisheries and tourism, so it is important to be able to detect, monitor, track and forecast the development and movement of HABs in real-time.”
The Marine Institute, where Jordan is a Cullen Scholar, monitors Irish coastal waters for the Karenia species as part of the National Phytoplankton Monitoring Programme. It is thought Karenia cells spend winter in low numbers and form blooms in early to late summer.
The programme analyses water samples from around the coasts of Ireland to identify any harmful phytoplankton and monitor their impact on shellfish and finfish, among other species.
The HABscope’s AI is designed to identify the swimming pattern of Karenia in a water sample, for example.
“As part of a recent survey on board the RV Celtic Voyager, a high density of Karenia cells was detected offshore in one area in a thin sub-surface layer, analogous to an underwater cloud. The HABscope was used successfully with samples from this layer and its performance is currently being evaluated,” said the Marine Institute in a recent announcement.
Despite its adverse effect on marine animals, Karenia has no impact on human health and is a common species in Irish coastal waters at this time of the year, the institute said.