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Marine Fossil-sorting Robot is 79% Accurate – Laboratory Equipment

The image here shows the section of Forabot that photographs individual fossils so that they can be identified, using artificial intelligence. Credit: Edgar Lobaton and Thomas Marichatto
Key Points:
Researchers have developed a robot that’s capable of sorting, manipulating and identifying microscopic marine fossils. The new technology automates a tedious process that helps humans study and better understand the world’s oceans and climate—both today and in prehistoric times.
“The beauty of this technology is that it is made using relatively inexpensive off-the-shelf components, and we are making both the designs and the artificial intelligence software open source,” said Edgar Lobaton, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State University, and co-author of a paper published in the Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems.
The technology, called Forabot, uses robotics and artificial intelligence to physically manipulate the remains of organisms called foraminifera, or forams, so those remains can be imaged and identified. Forams are protists, neither plant nor animal, and have been found in our oceans for more than 100 million years. When forams die, they leave behind their tiny shells, which give scientists insights into the characteristics of the oceans as they existed when the forams were alive.
But, evaluating foram shells and fossils is tedious and time-consuming, which led the team to develop Forabot to automate the process. The robot can use the images to identify the type of foram, and sort it accordingly.
To use Forabot, first, users have to wash and sieve a sample of hundreds of forams. This leaves users with a pile of what looks like sand. The sample of forams is then placed into a container called the isolation tower. A needle at the bottom of the isolation tower then projects up through the sample, lifting a single foram up where it is removed from the tower via suction. The suction pulls the foram to a separate container called the imaging tower, which is equipped with an automated, high-resolution camera that captures multiple images of the foram. After the images are taken, the foram is again lifted by a needle until it can be picked up via suction and deposited in the relevant container in a sorting station.
“At this point, Forabot is capable of identifying six different types of foram, and processing 27 forams per hour—but it never gets bored and it never gets tired,” Lobaton says. “This is a proof-of-concept prototype, so we’ll be expanding the number of foram species it is able to identify. And we’re optimistic we’ll also be able to improve the number of forams it can process per hour. [Right now], Forabot has an accuracy rate of 79% for identifying forams, which is better than most trained humans.”
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