Site icon Conservation news

Democratizing the deep sea: Q&A with Ocean Discovery League’s Katy Croff Bell

A reddish brown jellyfish in the deep sea.

A reddish brown jellyfish in the deep sea. Image by NOAA via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

  • The current expense of studying the deep seas stymies many research initiatives, so scientists have developed a low-cost imaging and sensor device to make access to the deep sea more equal.
  • Developed using off-the-shelf hardware, “Maka Niu” can capture images and collect data on temperature and salinity down to a depth of 1,500 meters, or nearly a mile.
  • Scientists in countries like the Maldives, Seychelles and South Africa are now deploying prototypes to provide feedback for the final product.

At first, Katy Croff Bell and her team had just wanted to make underwater cameras to give to school students from communities living along the Pacific Ocean. But when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted that plan, another idea took hold. The resulting project led to a low-cost imaging and sensor device that aims to make access to deep seas more available and easier than ever.

Today, the tube-shaped device can capture photos and videos, and also record data such as salinity and temperature, at depths down to 1,500 meters, or nearly a mile. The device, named Maka Niu (which roughly translates to “coconut eye” in Hawaiian), was conceived by a team that Bell led at MIT and developed by Ocean Discovery League, a Rhode Island-based nonprofit that she founded in 2021.

For context, oceanographers define the deep sea as the region below 200 m (660 feet) where light starts to fade. Accessing these depths is usually a costly affair, leaving out many countries and communities that can’t afford the logistics and technology.

“Deep sea exploration is expensive and, as a result, very exclusive,” Bell, a deep-sea explorer, told Mongabay in a video interview. “Our goal is to broaden access to these kinds of tools.”

According to a 2022 study published by Bell and her team in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, the team designed Maka Niu using off-the-shelf hardware, which reduced the cost. The resulting product is a reusable one that currently costs around $1,000 — with Bell hoping to further bring down the price per unit when it’s mass-produced for use around the world.

But the journey so far hasn’t been easy. Both the pandemic and the supply chain crisis led to speed bumps in the development and distribution of Maka Niu.

Katy Croff Bell inspecting a unit of Maka Niu.
Ocean Discovery League founder Katy Croff Bell inspecting a unit of Maka Niu. Image courtesy of Vanessa Kahn.

Mongabay spoke with Katy Croff Bell about how Maka Niu works, the hurdles her team faced in developing it, and the need to make deep sea access more equitable.

Mongabay: How would you explain Maka Niu?

Katy Croff Bell: Basically, Maka Niu is a camera and sensor system that we designed to be pretty low-cost to gather oceanographic data. It can collect some data about the environment underwater. It can go to 1,500 meters, so almost a mile deep.

It’s small, looks like a flashlight and is pretty easy to use. There is a collar that you can spin around using which you can select different options. You can set up different kinds of options. You can record just video or still imagery with the push of the button. You can program different kinds of missions with your smartphone or other devices. So you can set it up to, say, start recording when it gets to 50 meters [165 ft]. The parameters can be based on depth or it can be based on time — for example, after half an hour of being underwater, you can set it up to record video, still images, time lapse. We can also collect depth and temperature.

It is wireless charging, like an electric toothbrush. You just put it in a little cradle that plugs in. There are no connectors or anything. We wanted to make it as foolproof as we possibly could so people don’t have to deal with connectors or having to open it.

Mongabay: What was the gap you were trying to fill with Maka Niu?

Katy Croff Bell: Right now, the tools that can go deep are really big and you have to have a big ship with an A-frame and a crane. And all that adds up. These big ships for exploration that are outfitted with all the bells and whistles cost $10 million to $20 million a year. A lot of people, countries and communities around the world don’t have the resources to be able to access those kinds of tools. So it ends up in a situation where countries like the U.S, Europe, Japan, China and Russia — the higher income countries — have access to these kinds of tools.

Our goal is to broaden access to these kinds of tools, and to design them with people who don’t have access to these kinds of tools. We did a collaborative study a couple of years ago. The recommendations that came out of that were put, as much as we possibly could, into the design of Maka Niu. Like, for example, what sensors we were going to include.

Maka Niu.
Maka Niu is a low-cost imaging and sensor device which aims to make access to the deep seas equitable. Image courtesy of Lui Kawasumi.

Mongabay: How did the idea to develop this product come about? 

Katy Croff Bell: I met Nainoa Thomson and Lehua Kamalu at the Polynesian Voyaging Society in 2019. And we clicked. I thought they were doing amazing things. They thought we were doing amazing things. So we started thinking of how we can work together.

In January 2020, we went out to Hawai‘i, myself and a few of my teammates, partly to train with them because they were planning on a circum-Pacific voyage with their canoes. So we were doing a little bit of training with them, learning about voyaging and navigation in the Polynesian way. And coming up in June of 2020 was the Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture. And we thought, “Hey, let’s make some cameras that some high school students can use to deploy underwater.” We thought we would come back out and do a little workshop with people. But obviously it didn’t happen because of COVID-19. But we still loved the idea of creating something that could collect imagery and environmental-sensing data. And also have it be easy enough to use so that even high school students could deploy it with coconuts. That was the origin of the name. Maka Niu means “coconut eye” loosely translated from Hawaiian. So that was the spark.

But I don’t know how we thought we were going to make something between February and June to actually be used, because it took much longer than that. But it resulted in this tool that really fills a need for the oceanographic and conservation communities in the marine space.

Mongabay: What stage of development is the Maka Niu at? Has it been deployed on the ground already?

Katy Croff Bell: We have a network of about a dozen people around the world who have these and have been collecting data and deploying them. They have been taking it on expeditions with them, and they’ve been actually using it for their own research needs. It could be for scientific efforts, or it could be for conservation efforts. We are now in the process of collecting their feedback.

Mongabay: What feedback are you getting from people who have used the Maka Niu?

Katy Croff Bell: Some of our test users have had to open it up and fix some things because this is the first version. It’s a prototype now. But in general, things have been going pretty well. One of our collaborators from the Seychelles has deployed it there. Same thing in the Maldives. We have another collaborator who has a big expedition in South Africa. One of our engineers has taken it out on some oceanographic expeditions, so he has actually been able to collect data with vehicles that are established in the field with this strapped on, so we can compare the sensor data and make sure it’s in agreement.

Seychelles shore.
Scientists in countries like the Maldives, Seychelles and South Africa are now deploying prototypes to provide feedback for the final product. Image by flowcomm via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Mongabay: What differentiates Maka Niu from other products out there?

Katy Croff Bell: Things like this just don’t exist for deep water. You can get a GoPro to go down to, say, 100 meters [330 ft]. But even then, it is still only imagery, right? But with this, we are able to know the GPS and other important parameters. And we are able to get the data off really easily. We don’t have connectors, so it’s all wireless. And so you are able to upload your video, your sensor data and everything to either a local device if you don’t have decent internet capabilities, or to an online software annotation platform called Tator that was developed by one of our collaborators, CVision AI.

We are also in the process of building an online tool that uses machine learning and artificial intelligence so that we can accelerate the rate at which we can analyze underwater video. Because right now, people literally have hard drives sitting in closet floors that’s rotting away.

Mongabay: How did you manage to make this device a low-cost one?

Katy Croff Bell: We use the Raspberry Pi and other parts that don’t cost that much. Also, our goal is to hopefully end up mass-producing them, which will drop the price even more than they are right now. Right now, the making cost is even more than it was a couple of years ago, just because it’s impossible to get parts. But it is still less than $1,000 for parts. But the hope is that it could be around the price point of say, a GoPro. So a few hundred dollars.

Mongabay: What is the next step in the process? What does the future of Maka Niu look like?

Katy Croff Bell: The next step is gathering feedback. What works? What doesn’t work? What could we make better in the future? We are also [working on] another system that is less in circulation. We have only built three of them so far. It’s a modular system. Think of it like Lego, where you have a pile of different stuff and click it together in different ways. For example, do you want an altimeter on it? Click on and attach the altimeter module. Do you want an arm to put on lights? Then you can attach the arm. That’s the idea. All within one system. So that’s what we are looking at toward the future. Not having necessarily just a single thing.

We want to run with this idea of making it as easy as possible, with as little intervention from us as possible. Of course, we are happy to support everybody, but we don’t want people to be reliant on us. That’s another thing that really came out loud and clear: the ability for folks to be able to fix stuff and do it themselves in their country, and not have to be like, “Oh, it’s broken, I need to mail this back to the U.S., get a new one or fix it and then ship it back.” That’s definitely a big barrier when it comes to these kinds of technologies.

We want to make things as easy as possible to replace. For example, one of our collaborators in the Seychelles, her Raspberry Pi failed. So we had to send her a new one so that she could fix it. Right now, with the supply chain crisis, things are more challenging. But the hope is that, in a few years, maybe she could get that part for herself and we wouldn’t have to do that for her.

Deep-sea corals and creatures.
Deep-sea corals and creatures. Image by NOAA Photo Library via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Mongabay: How bad is the supply chain crisis impacting your work now?

Katy Croff Bell: You can’t even get Raspberry Pi right now. There are some parts that we ordered in the spring, and we are not expecting to get those parts for a whole year right now.

Mongabay: Is the supply chain crisis the biggest challenge at the moment?

Katy Croff Bell: Everything is kind of a hurdle at the moment (laughs). We came up with the idea with our collaborators at the Polynesian Voyaging Society and another group at MIT at the time, the Future Ocean Lab, in February of 2020. So this entire project has been done remotely. One of our engineers built these in his apartment in Cambridge. So everything takes longer than we hope. But so far, so good. We are really proud about how much we have actually accomplished with the circumstances.

Mongabay: How do you think conservation technology is faring at the moment?

Katy Croff Bell: A lot of this stuff has historically been too expensive for people to access, so I think that one of the most important things is dropping the price and also dropping the knowledge barrier. You shouldn’t need to have a Ph.D. to be able to use these kinds of tools, get good data that can help and answer whatever your question is.

Mongabay: Finally, what are your plans for Ocean Discovery League, the organization that you founded?

Katy Croff Bell: We have only been around for about a year and a half. So I am really just sort of operationalizing all of these things that have been cooking in my brain for many years. I have my background in deep-sea exploration and I have spent a lot of time on big ships that use multimillion-dollar vehicles. They are awesome, but at the same time, only a very small number of people have access to them.

So when I was at the MIT Media Lab from about 2017 to 2021, it really gave me a chance to step back, look at other industries and other fields and to see what’s going on in them. It gave me the opportunity to try and think about how we can use technologies and methods of doing things that we might pull from other fields.

So that’s why I started Ocean Discovery League so that we can actually start to do this, and create the tools for data collection and data analysis. We want to make sure that they don’t just have the tools, but also have the skills to be able to do this kind of work, and also maintain this kind of work into the future. How do we create long-term sustainable capacity? That’s our future mission.

Banner image: A reddish brown jellyfish in the deep sea. Image by NOAA via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).


Novy, D., Kawasumi, L., Ferguson, J., Sullivan, M., Bell, P., Chow, J. S., … Bell, K. L. C. (2022). Maka Niu: A low-cost, modular imaging and sensor platform to increase observation capabilities of the deep ocean. Frontiers in Marine Science, 9. doi:10.3389/fmars.2022.986237

Exit mobile version