The Future of Underwater Technology: Interview with Joost Den Haan from PlanBlue

Photo by PlanBlue

Photo by PlanBlue

Sea Going Green is excited to announce its partnership with PlanBlue! Their smart technology can automatically analyze seafoors. It can for example visualize the health status of the seafloor making it easily understandable to policy makers, the general public, but also coastal managers. We at Sea Going Green can’t wait to start working together with PlanBlue on future projects to help the marine tourism industry to #GoGreenForTheBigBlue!

In this week’s blog, you’ll hear more about how the DiveRay works and the ways that the data gathered from it can help solve the biggest problems facing our oceans. Take a look at the inspiring work PlanBlue has done by getting an inside look at the motivation and future of this technology in our interview with CEO, Joost Den Haan.

Can you first tell us about who you are and what your motivation was to come up with PlanBlue?

My name is Joost, I am the CEO and co-founder at PlanBlue.

So, why did I start PlanBlue?

In 2010, I did a research dive with one of my former students. This was during my PhD research on the island of Curacao, where I studied the effects of human pollution on coral reefs. It was the first time my student went diving on a coral reef. We were going to be diving a lot over the coming months, so I wanted to make sure she was a good diver (which she was by the way). The dive itself went great, and afterwards I asked her what she thought of the coral reefs. She told me it was the most beautiful dive she’s ever done, nice fishes, beautiful colorful corals, she was amazed. I was really surprised, because 99% of the corals were dead. How she observed the seafloor was very different than me, because of differences in our background knowledge. You actually get this a lot, whenever people go diving for the first time, they find it beautiful. The first time I went diving on a coral reef I was very disappointed, because the coral reef looked differently than I expected (I studied marine biology, focusing on coral reefs).

During my studies, working in the seafloor monitoring industry, and later on post doctoral research, one of my main drivers was to visualise how seafloors are actually doing and how important they are to all of us. Healthy seafloors mean healthy oceans afterall. The main problem however is that analysing seafloors is often very subjective. Deciding how healthy something is underwater or whether something needs to be repaired or cleaned is often done manually. You can imagine that a student will get very different results than someone that has been studying, let’s say Mediterranean seafloors, for over 30 years. This I wanted to change, so that everybody can see and understand how sealfoors are actually doing (i.e., general public, politicians), and that seafloor monitoring finally becomes objective. While working at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) in Bremen, Germany, I worked on a technology that could do this (together with my MPI colleagues). I asked whether we could make this technology available outside of science as well, and after securing funding from the German government, we were able to start PlanBlue GmbH.

What does PlanBlue want to achieve?

We aim to create a standardized seafloor monitoring technology, make it easily accessible, and create a database of seafloor maps. We have a strong ethical code: our technology and data cannot be used to exploit and/or damage our oceans.  

What is the DiveRay, how does it work and who is the main user?

The DiveRay is a unique underwater camera combined with machine-learning software, which makes seafloor monitoring more efficient, cheaper and above all objective. The main users are environmental consultancies, offshore wind energy sector, research institutes and universities, underwater construction and inspection companies and NGOs.

Can you also elaborate on how the data that is gathered can be applied?

The DiveRay makes use of a hyperspectral camera, but also takes normal pictures and video material. Because we combine hyperspectral imaging with machine learning, the DiveRay can be very precisely trained to automatically identify objects underwater. Anybody can train our DiveRay via our software program. Once properly trained, the DiveRay becomes the expert. Consequently, it does not matter anymore who operates the DiveRay, anybody can monitor.

The data can be used to determine the effectiveness of seafloor restoration efforts, create a baseline to for example determine the effect of climate change on coral reefs, inspect underwater constructions whether repairs are needed, determine where best (not to build) for example a new harbour, identify how much plastic waste is present on the seafloor and whether this should be cleaned up, better inform policymakers to speed up climate legislation etc. etc. There are many applications.

What are the top three advantages of this technology and how can this change the face of underwater tech?

Our DiveRay technology makes seafloor monitoring more efficient, cheaper and makes it objective. The DiveRay technology can become the new standard in underwater monitoring.

To link your business back to sustainable tourism, how do you think that your technology can make a difference in helping to protect our oceans and keep our prized marine destinations beautiful?

With our technology you can make seafloor maps that can be interpreted by anyone, no prior knowhow is needed. You can for example create a map of a coral reef and show where the dead corals are in red, and where the healthy ones are in green. We visualise the invisible so to say, as people observe differently based on their background knowledge. We create a baseline to accurately show how our oceans are affected by climate change, the dive industry, construction efforts, how much plastic waste there is etc. We can then better support decision makers to help protect our oceans, but also increase overall awareness.

What would you like to accomplish with PlanBlue in the future?

Create a unique database of seafloor maps to visualise how important our seafloors are.  This will help us to better protect our oceans.

What is your favorite marine animal?

Smooth Trunkfish (post-larval stage)

Smooth Trunkfish (post-larval stage) Photo by Ktuli Photography

Smooth Trunkfish (post-larval stage) Photo by Ktuli Photography