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Startup Deploys AI to See Better Underwater

SeaDeep aims to protect coral reefs, monitor undersea pipelines and cables, and improve inspections of offshore energy platforms


Two-thirds of our planet is covered by ocean, yet what lies below that surface remains a largely unmapped and daunting frontier. The simple reason: It is difficult to see clearly.

A combination of natural factors contribute to that murkiness, including turbulence, low light, and suspended particles in the liquid. Sonar, useful for underwater navigation, succeeds in this environment with sound pulses, but that go-to technology can miss crucial insights, such as those that might mitigate coral reef bleaching or pipeline corrosion.

Now SeaDeep, a Tufts startup, is harnessing AI as a breakthrough technology that can greatly enhance underwater visibility and reveal a world still largely unexplored. Founded in 2020, the company builds underwater monitoring technology using cutting-edge AI to detect, assess, map and report on what the World Wildlife Foundation estimates are trillions of dollars’ worth of underwater ocean assets—and in real-time.

Karen Panetta, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and dean of graduate education at the School of Engineering. heads the Tufts Visualization, Sensing, and Simulation Lab.

Karen Panetta, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and dean of graduate education at the School of Engineering. heads the Tufts Visualization, Sensing, and Simulation Lab.

At the heart of the enterprise is SeaDeep’s proprietary AI technology built on a foundation of image-enhancing advances developed by co-founder Karen Panetta, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and dean of graduate education at the School of Engineering. 

Panetta, who heads the Tufts Visualization, Sensing, and Simulation Lab, is a recognized leader in developing the next generation of signal and imaging processing algorithms and simulation tools. 

SeaDeep meets the urgent need to protect an imperiled ocean ecosystem, said Panetta, adding that SeaDeep has the potential to be scaled up to address the threats that encompass the destruction of corals and vast seagrass habitats. The catastrophic consequences of inaction, she said, require new technologies that can offer solutions with precision and expediency. 

“Time is of the essence,” she said. “SeaDeep can be part of a global strategy for conserving and protecting our oceans with our proprietary AI. We will allow new generations to explore, explain, and expand our knowledge of this unexplored frontier.”

Leading the four-year-old start up forward are other co-founders, all School of Engineering graduates. The CEO is Eric Osherow, A19, EG20, who followed a double major in philosophy and international literary and visual studies with a deep dive into entrepreneurship—the Master of Science in Innovation & Management program at Tufts Gordon Institute. 

SeaDeep’s research and development is led by Tufts Ph.D. graduates and now assistant research professors in the Panetta Lab, CTO Shishir Paramathma Rao, EG22, and head of AI Srijith Rajeev, EG22.

SeaDeep on Gulf of Mexico dive

SeaDeep co-founders (l-r): Shishir Paramathma Rao, EG22, Eric Osherow, A19, EG20, and Srijith Rajeev, EG22, on a recent dive off the coast of Florida. With funding from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center InnovateMass program, the team was able to further develop SeaDeep’s underwater environmental sensing technology in the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo: Courtesy of Eric Osherow

Kevin Oye, E79, executive director of Tufts Gordon Institute, said the intersection of talent and drive, as demonstrated in SeaDeep’s steady growth over the past four years, speaks to Tufts’ strength as a catalyst for innovation across disciplines.

Once a good idea is sparked, he said, entrepreneurs can creatively leverage the university’s research and technology to come up with powerful, and transformative, applications. 

“SeaDeep exemplifies Tufts’ distinctive ability to foster ideas that push boundaries as they also respond directly to pressing problems, and, in this case, to issues directly related to not only sustainability such as reef preservation, but also the security and maintainability of billions of dollars of undersea infrastructure,” he said. “Their momentum is the best testimony to the strength of that commitment.”

Indeed, these days finds the SeaDeep team sharply focused on developing a technology that they believe offers solutions with a range as vast as the ocean itself. Its applications span bluetech industries from marine preservation and offshore wind to aquaculture, allowing companies to monitor underwater infrastructure more effectively, which in turn could avert catastrophes such as burst pipelines. 

Most recently, the team was one of several startups recognized by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center InnovateMass program, which allowed it to further develop SeaDeep’s underwater environmental sensing technology in the Gulf of Mexico. 

But SeaDeep could play a part in safeguarded oceans worldwide. For example, the group is developing a partnership with Seabed 2030, a project of the Nippon Foundation and General Bathymetric Chart of the Ocean, and endorsed by the United Nations, to facilitate the complete mapping of the global ocean floor by the year 2030.

CEO Osherow also champions SeaDeep’s technology as indispensable in the transition to clean energy. As Massachusetts ramps up investments in innovative technologies to support the offshore wind industry, SeaDeep is well positioned to contribute to that growth. 

It was one of five startups chosen for the Go Energize 2023 Program at Somerville’s Greentown Labs, a program focused on accelerating the development of offshore wind power off the coast of Massachusetts. 

The SeaDeep team collaborated closely with Vineyard Wind—the first large-scale offshore wind farm in the United States—and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center on pioneering innovations for responsible offshore wind development. 

These efforts focused on developing methodologies for comprehensive offshore data collection, encompassing benthic habitat monitoring and asset inspection to identify potential corrosion and other risks, thereby ensuring the long-term integrity and sustainability of underwater infrastructure.

“Beneath the surface of our ocean lies an unexplored world vital to our global economy, but only a tiny portion of it is understood,” Osherow said. “It’s essentially ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ That is until a pipeline bursts or we see massive coral bleaching—environmental consequences of human actions that could, and should, be carefully managed.”

SeaDeep aims to mitigate these challenges by integrating advanced sensors and AI with underwater robots, divers, and analysts exploring the ocean depths. These products capture the entire light spectrum, with the data then processed by efficient and rapid AI-powered image enhancement and analytics technology.

“With the efficiency and accuracy of AI, we can offer information that brings immediate and powerful preventative measures that benefit commercial operations and conservationists,” said Osherow. “This kind of visibility is critical in a time when we urgently need sustainable actions and practices.” 

The idea for SeaDeep goes back to a presentation by Panetta at Tufts Gordon Institute as part of the university’s Tech Transfer and Industry Collaboration program, developed to spark business ideas among aspiring entrepreneurs.

Panetta has long been pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with AI; she was recently recognized by the National Academy of Inventors and recently named to Business Insider's top five people in artificial-intelligence sustainability. 

At Tufts, she and her team have harnessed AI to work with drones to aid in disaster recovery, to track elephants in their natural habitat, and for underwater search and rescue. 

Osherow recalled how Panetta’s work “inspired me to think about AI as a solution to the visibility problem, but also as a technology that would help us protect our threatened oceans. As she says: ‘Dare to solve the hard, real-world problems.’”

Rao and Rajeev were natural partners in shaping the SeaDeep vision. They were both aspiring entrepreneurs when they came to Tufts to earn their doctorates under Panetta following master’s degrees at the University of Texas at San Antonio. 

For Rao, SeaDeep has a special timely relevance, given its connection to rising concerns about marine preservation and sustainability tools that help, rather than interfere with, the natural world. 

“Utilizing sonar to us seemed like walking blind into one of the most sensitive ecologies in the world,” he said. “It does offer some insights, but at great risk to marine mammals. We saw, with SeaDeep’s use of AI, an opportunity to make something with real-world impact to it, and that means how do we help build a sustainable future.”

That future is, in fact, already in play. SeaDeep was included in a 2021 Bloomberg climate technology white paper, “Understanding and monitoring our changing planet,” as “one of many new technologies that can aid in mapping and understanding oceans as carbon sinks,” that is, as an environment that can absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reduce the impact of climate change.  

With characteristic optimism, Panetta frames SeaDeep as continuing to test, and to prove, the versatility and range of AI as a solution to challenges that were long considered intractable. 

“Start-ups like SeaDeep are built on the idea that we can make a difference in the world,” she said, “and we grateful that that vision is supported by the university’s Office of the Vice President for Innovation. SeaDeep is on its way to becoming the leading AI engine for underwater robotic applications, and as it continues to gain momentum, I expect it will become synonymous with subsea vision.”

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