Visual 3D reconstruction techniques provide rich ecological and habitat structural information from underwater imagery. However, an unaided swimmer or diver struggles to navigate precisely over larger extents with consistent image overlap needed for visual reconstruction. While underwater robots have demonstrated systematic coverage of areas much larger than the footprint of a single image, access to suitable robotic systems is limited and requires specialized operators. Furthermore, robots are poor at navigating hydrodynamic habitats such as shallow coral reefs. We present a simple approach that constrains the motion of a swimmer using a line unwinding from a fixed central drum. The resulting motion is the involute of a circle, a spiral-like path with constant spacing between revolutions. We test this survey method at a broad range of habitats and hydrodynamic conditions encircling Lizard Island in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. The approach generates fast, structured, repeatable, and large-extent surveys (~110 m² in 15 min) that can be performed with two people and are superior to the commonly used “mow the lawn” method. The amount of image overlap is a design parameter, allowing for surveys that can then be reliably used in an automated processing pipeline to generate 3D reconstructions, orthographically projected mosaics, and structural complexity indices. The individual images or full mosaics can also be labeled for benthic diversity and cover estimates. The survey method we present can serve as a standard approach to repeatedly collecting underwater imagery for high-resolution 2D mosaics and 3D reconstructions covering spatial extents much larger than a single image footprint without requiring sophisticated robotic systems or lengthy deployment of visual guides. As such, it opens up cost-effective novel observations to inform studies relating habitat structure to ecological processes and biodiversity at scales and spatial resolutions not readily available previously.
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- 3D reconstruction
- benthic survey
- repeatable survey