MB-System FAQ

MB-System is a software package consisting of programs which manipulate, process, list, or display swath sonar bathymetry, amplitude, and sidescan data. This software is distributed freely (and for free) in the form of source code for Unix platforms. The heart of the system is an input/output library called MBIO which allows programs to work transparently with any of a number of supported swath sonar data formats. This approach has allowed the creation of “generic” utilities which can be applied in a uniform manner to sonar data from a variety of sources.

The source code is freely available for free. The package can also be installed via package managers for free on MacOSX, Ubuntu Linux, Red Hat/CentOs Linux, and Debian Linux.

The originators and primary developers of MB-System are David W. Caress of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and Dale N. Chayes of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) of Columbia University. The core MB-System development team also includes Christian dos Santos Ferreira of the Center for Marine Environmental Sciences (MARUM) at the University of Bremen. Krystle Anderson of MBARI assisted the team in writing MB-System documentation. Val Schmidt, formerly an engineer at LDEO,and now a research engineer at the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire, was the primary author of the first version of the MB-System Cookbook. See the bottom of home page for team information.

The source code for MB-System is written in ANSI C and Perl and should be portable to all unix-like platforms. MB-System has been successfully installed on PC’s and Macintoshes running Linux, Macintoshes running MacOS X, Sun workstations running under SunOS4.1 and Solaris, Silicon Graphics (SGI) workstations running under IRIX, Hewlett Packard workstations, Dec Alpha workstations, and PC’s running under the Lynx realtime operating system.

Click here for a list of supported sonars and data formats.

Click here for a list of some of the swath mapping data formats supported by MB-System are documented on the main MB-System websites:

Click here for instructions on obtaining the MB-System source code distribution.

Click here for information on MB-System copyright and licensing.

Click here for information on other software required for an MB-System installation.

Click here for MB-System installation information.

Although we make no promises about how rapidly problems will be fixed, we strongly encourage users to notify us of bugs (and fixes!).
Problems should be reported by posts to the MB-System discussion list. You will have to subscribe to the list in order to post to it (one can always unsubscribe at any time). If you are unable to access the MB-System Discussion List, you can email David Caress, Dale Chayes and Christian Ferreira directly. However, due to our frequent travel, using the discussion list makes timely responses more likely.

In order to support a new data format, we will require a data format specification document and a data sample. We make no promises about how rapidly new formats can be supported. Format support requests by NSF-funded scientists are given priority. We encourage users with data in unsupported formats to write the input/output modules themselves, and contribute the code to the MB-System project.

Incremental bug fixes and code changes often occur between the source code releases. These updates to individual source files are reflected in the source code archive, which can be accessed at:

Periodically, we construct full source code distributions and make them available on the ftp site:

These source code distributions consist of gzipped tar files with names of the form “MB-System5.3.1906.tar.gz”, where 5.3 indicates the incrementing major and minor release id’s, and the third number indicates the corresponding revision level in the source code archive.

We maintain an MB-System discussion email list to facilitate communication among MB-System developers and users. We encourage users with questions and/or problems to use this list rather than emailing the developers directly. One must subscribe to the list in order to post messages, but the message archive is publicly viewable and searchable over a web interface. The maximum message size in this list is 100K. Please do not attempt to attach data samples to discussion list posts.

To read the archives go to:

To subscribe go to:

The MB-System Cookbook tutorial documentation by Val Schmidt, Dale N. Chayes, and David W. Caress is available from the Lamont-Doherty web site both as web pages and as a downloadable pdf document, however, significantly out of date:

MB-System 5.0 Cookbook web pages

MB-System 5.0 Cookbook pdf file

Papers specifically about MB-System:
Caress, D. W., and D. N. Chayes, New software for processing sidescan data from sidescan-capable multibeam sonars, Proceedings of the IEEE Oceans 95 Conference, 997-1000, 1995.

Caress, D. W., and D. N. Chayes, Improved processing of Hydrosweep DS multibeam data on the R/V Maurice Ewing, Mar. Geophys. Res., 18, 631-650, 1996.

This paper on high-resolution autonomous mapping features some of the more recent MB-System capabilities:
Caress, D.W., H. Thomas, W. J. Kirkwood, R. McEwen, R. Henthorn, E. A. Clague, C. K. Paull, J. Paduan, and K. L. Maier, “High-Resolution Multibeam, Sidescan, and Subbottom Surveys Using the MBARI AUV D. Allan B.”, Marine Habitat Mapping Technology for Alaska, J.R. Reynolds and H.G. Greene (eds.) Alaska Sea Grant College Program, University of Alaska Fairbanks. doi:10.4027/mhmta.2008.04

References to the software distributions:
Caress, D. W., and D. N. Chayes, MB-System: Mapping the Seafloor, https://www.mbari.org/products/research-software/mb-system, 2017.

Click here for some notions regarding future MB-System development.

MB-System is primarily supported by the Packard Foundation and the National Science Foundation. The Marine Geology and Geophysics program of the Ocean Sciences Division of NSF provides support through active grants (2013-2017) to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (principal investigator David W. Caress) and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University (principal investigator Dale N. Chayes). The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, funded by the Packard Foundation, matches the NSF support for David W. Caress as part of its seafloor mapping program, and provides additional support as part of internal MBARI development projects and operations. Additional support also occasionally comes in the form of contract work for various government agencies and companies.

The seamount shown in illuminated color 3D perspective in the MB-System logo is the northern Urville Seamount (or Dumont d’Urville du Nord, as it appears on French charts). This seamount is located in the Marquesas Islands at 9 35’S, 139 47’W. It was surveyed in 1991 and 1992 using the Hydrosweep DS multibeam sonar on the R/V Maurice Ewing.

The development of MB-System began in 1990 as part of ongoing research at LDEO involving swath bathymetry data collected with SeaBeam multibeam sonars. Development was accelerated in 1991 as part of the effort to support the STN-Atlas Hydrosweep DS multibeam sonar on LDEO’s ship, the R/V Maurice Ewing. The Marine Geology and Geophysics Program (Ocean Sciences Division) of the National Science Foundation (NSF) provided support in 1993 and 1994 to improve and extend MB-System. The intent of this initial grant was to provide a standard “generic” set of tools for processing and display of swath sonar data that could be used by the U.S. academic community. The first generally released version of MB-System (3.0) was made available in the Spring of 1993. This was followed by versions 3.1 and 3.2 in July, 1993, version 3.3 in November, 1993, and version 3.4 in December 1993. All of these early releases supported only SeaBeam and Hydrosweep data.

SeaBeam Instruments and Antarctic Support Associates provided additional support in 1994 for the development of MB-System, with particular emphasis on capabilities related to the new SeaBeam 2100 series of sonars. A considerably enhanced MB-System version 4.0 was released on October 22, 1994; this release followed an almost complete rewrite of the underlying source code. The new capabilities included support for sidescan as well as bathymetry data and support for data from a number of very different sonars.

The NSF funded a five year effort begun in 1995 to maintain and further develop MB-System. From 1994 to 1997, SeaBeam Instruments (a major multibeam sonar manufacturer and, at the time, the principal employer of David W. Caress) provided significant support for MB-System development and maintenance. Similarly, the Newport, RI office of the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) supported some MB-System development during 1997-1998, when David W. Caress worked there. Version 4.1 was released in November, 1994, followed by 4.2 in February 1995, 4.3 on March 12, 1996, 4.4 on August 27, 1996, and 4.5 on September 23, 1997.

David W. Caress joined the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in September, 1998. Version 4.6 was released on April 16, 1999. The final update to version 4.6 (4.6.10) was announced on March 8, 2000. The primary innovations during this period included support for the new generation of Simrad multibeam sonars and tools for generating data products that could be imported directly into GIS software packages.

The NSF has funded additional five year grants to MBARI and LDEO which have supported the MB-System project from 2001-2006, 2006-2011, and now from 2013-2017. The Packard Foundation, through its support of MBARI, has matched the NSF support and provided considerable additional support as part of MBARI’s efforts to achieve high resolution seafloor mapping in the deep ocean using autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs).The version 5.0 release incorporated a substantial rewrite of the underlying code as well as providing significant new capabilities The initial version 5.0 development took nearly three years. A first “beta” release was made on April 6, 2001, followed by thirty more beta releases, the last on April 29, 2003. Version 5.0.0 was finally released on December 5, 2003. The software has evolved considerably since that time, and now includes tools for 2D/3D visualization, 3D interactive data editing, navigation adjustment of surveys from submerged platforms, processing and display of subbottom profiler data, and many other features. Version 5.1 was released on November 26, 2006, version 5.2 on December 30, 2010, and version 5.3 on September 28, 2011. Dozens of incremental releases have been made before and since 5.3, and public access to the code archive allows users to be up to date with respect to development and maintenance regardless of the release schedule.

In January 2012 an MB-System planning meeting was held at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory to lay out long range plans for MB-System development. With the renewal of NSF support in 2013, the MB-System team is now working to implement the priorities from the planning meeting as part of a major code rewrite that will be realized in the release of MB-System version 6.

In addition to the core team (David Caress, Dale Chayes, Christian dos Santos Ferreira), a number of people have made contributions to the code included in MB-System. These include:

  • Val Schmidt (CCOM, University of New Hampshire, formerly Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)
  • Gordon Keith (CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research, Australia)
  • Kurt Schwehr (Google; formerly CCOM/JHC, University of New Hampshire)
  • Suzanne O’Hara (Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)
  • Bob Covill (Tekmap Consulting, Nova Scotia)
  • Peter Lemmond (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
  • Jonathan Beaudoin (QPS; affiliate at CCOM/JHC, University of New Hampshire)
  • John Hughes Clarke (CCOM/JHC, University of New Hampshire; formerly University of New Brunswick)
  • Hamish Bowman (University of Otago, New Zealand)
  • Roger Davis (University of Hawaii)
  • Ammar Aljuhne (MARUM, University of Bremen, Germany)
  • Mike McCann (MBARI)
  • Hans Thomas (MBARI)
  • Daniel Scheirer (USGS, formerly Brown University)
  • Paul Cohen (formerly at SeaBeam Instruments)
  • Steve Dzurenko (formerly at SeaBeam Instruments, more recently at University of Texas)
  • David Brock (formerly with Antarctic Support Associates)
  • Alberto Malinverno (Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, later at Schlumberger-Doll, now back at Lamont)
  • Russ Alexander (formerly with UCSB)

Numerous users and vendors have provided information regarding data file formats and sonar system specific characteristics.

Remember when Y2K was a buzz word? If so, you are old like us. Not that it matters anymore, but MB-System became fully Y2K compliant as of the final release of version 4.6. Surprisingly, a number of data formats associated with current commercial products still use two digits to represent the year. MB-System treats two digit year values as being in the 1900’s if the year value is greater than or equal to 62, and in the 2000’s if the year value is less than 62. The use of 1962 derives from the invention of the multibeam sonar in that year – there are no digital swath mapping data available from an earlier time.


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