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 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 download – for free. The package can be installed on the latest versions of MacOS, several flavors of Ubuntu and Debian Linux, CygWin for Windows, and as a Docker container. 

The originators and primary developers of MB-System are David W. Caress, now 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 C, C++, Perl, and Python, and should be portable to Unix-like platforms. MB-System can be installed on MacOS, computers running many Linux distributions, BSD, QNX, and other Unix-like operating systems, and Windows with Cygwin extensions. See the Download and Install page for instructions.

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

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

Click here for MB-System installation information.

See our Download and Install page for instructions on how to download from GitHub the latest, stable, full source code distribution or the most recent incremental (beta) pre-release with bug fixes and minor code changes. 

These source code distributions consist of gzipped tar files with names of the form “MB-System5.7.8.tar.gz”, and “MB-System5.7.9beta59” where 5.7 indicates the incrementing major and minor release id’s, the third number indicates the corresponding revision level in the source code archive, and the beta# indicates the incremental revision level within that.

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

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:

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.

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: http://listserver.mbari.org/sympa/arc/mbsystem

To subscribe go to: http://listserver.mbari.org/sympa/subscribe/mbsystem

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.

The MB-System Cookbook tutorial documentation by Val Schmidt, Dale N. Chayes, and David W. Caress is available from the Lamont-Doherty website 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: https://www.mbari.org/technology/mb-system, 2024.

Currently MB-System is primarily supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation through its annual grant to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). Most of the effort to maintain the software, support users, and develop new capabilities occurs within the activities of the Seafloor Mapping Lab led by David Caress at MBARI. The contributions led by Christian Ferreira at Zentrum für Marine Umweltwissenschaften (MARUM – Center for Marine Environmental Sciences) are supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG – German Research Foundation) through its funding to MARUM.
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 9o 35’S, 139o 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 by Associate Research Scientist David Caress involving swath bathymetry data collected with SeaBeam multibeam sonars. Development was accelerated in 1991 as part of the effort led by Staff Associate Dale Chayes 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 for Caress and Chayes 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 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 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 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.
Starting in 2000, the MB-System team undertook to restructure how data are processed, an effort that necessitated once again substantially rewriting the source code. Essentially this was a change from an architecture in which most programs read swath data and output changed swath data, resulting in large numbers of intermediate partially processed data files, to an architecture in which only one program, mbprocess, actually produces output swath data that have been modified. In this model for version 5, most MB-System tools other than mbprocess are for editing, modeling, or analysis of swath data, and their function is to modify the processing instructions and parameters that are implemented by mbprocess. 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. Simulataneously with the initial version 5 development, Val Schmidt of LDEO wrote the MB-System Cookbook, which provided a basic introduction to multibeam sonar data, documented the new processing architecture, and provided concrete examples for processing data from several different multibeam sonar models. The software has evolved considerably since that time, and by 2016 included tools for 2D/3D visualization, 3D interactive data editing, navigation adjustment of surveys from submerged platforms, processing and display of subbottom profiler data, processing of subsea lidar bathymetry, and many other features. With release 5.8, MB-System was augmented with tools for generating photomosaics from still photography of the seafloor and a package implementing Terrain Relative Navigation enabling a submerged vehicle to use realtime bathymetry data to localize relative to a preexisting bathymetry map. 
The release dates for the successive major version 5 distributions were:
5.1 November 26, 2006 
5.2 December 30, 2010
5.3 September 28, 2011
5.4 May 23, 2013
5.5 February 26, 2015
5.6 September 11, 2018
5.7 December 19, 2018
5.8 January 22, 2024
The MB-System source code has been archived in three successive version controlled repositories. Prior to 2009, the source code was archived in a CVS repository hosted on a computer in Dale Chayes office at LDEO. This was migrated to Subversion in 2009, still hosted at LDEO. The repository was migrated again in September 2018, this time to use Git and to be hosted on GitHub.
Although David Caress and Dale Chayes have been involved from the beginning, many others have contributed. Christian Ferreira of MARUM at the University of Bremen became involved with MB-System in about 2008, and by 2012 was considered one of the core team. From 2010 to 2016 Christian generated a Linux distribution call Poseidon Linux based on Ubuntu Linux that added open source seafloor mapping and GIS packages, including MB-System. Other key contributors over the years have included Gordon Keith of CSIRO in Tasmania, Australia, Kurt Schwehr of Google, Suzanne O’Hara of LDEO, and Bob Covill of Tekmap Consulting in Nova Scotia, Canada (see the more complete list of contributors below). 
Workshops to plan MB-System development priorities were held at LDEO in 2012 and at MBARI in 2014. The participants at the 2012 workshop were:
Bob Arko (LDEO)
Brian Calder (CCOM/UNH)
David Caress (MBARI)
Dale Chayes (LDEO)
Bob Covill (Tekmap) (remote)
Christian dos Santos Ferreira (MARUM/U. Bremen)
Vicki Ferrini (LDEO)
David Fischman (NGDC/NOAA)
Paul Johnson (CCOM/UNH)
Gordon Keith (CSIRO
Peter Lemmond (WHOI)
Suzanne O’Hara (LDEO)
Hartmut Piertrek (BSH) (remote)
Val Schmidt (CCOM/UNH)
Kurt Schwehr (Google) (remote)
The participants of the 2014 workshop were:
Krystle Anderson (MBARI)
David Caress (MBARI)
Dale Chayes (LDEO)
Christian dos Santos Ferreira (MARUM/U. Bremen)
Vicki Ferrini (LDEO)
David Finlayson (USGS)
Marcus Hammond (Stanford)
Rich Henthorn (MBARI)
Gordon Keith (CSIRO)
Peter Lemmond (WHOI)
Mike McCann (MBARI)
Suzanne O’Hara (LDEO)
Jose Padial (Stanford)
Jenny Paduan (MBARI)
Evan Robertson (NOAA)
Kurt Schwehr (Google Earth/Google Oceans)
Mathias Weinrebe (MANIDA/PANGEA)
Starting in 2019, MBARI software engineers Kent Headley and Tom O’Reilly began contributing to development, with Headley integrating the Terrain Relative Navigation toosl and O’Reilly working to update the underpinnings of the interactive tools GUI’s and visualization graphics. Jenny Paduan also began assisting with documentation at MBARI. With European Union funding to Ferreira at MARUM, Johannes Schauer Marin Rodrigues of the University of Weurzburg began working on integrating a statistical algorithm for bathymetry cleaning and gridding called CHRT into MB-System during 2022. Ferreira was also joined at MARUM during 2023 by Evgenia Bazhenova to assist with documentation development.
The funding of MB-System development has also evolved over time. NSF funded three additional five year grants to MBARI and LDEO which helped support the MB-System project from 2001-2006, 2006-2011, and 2013-2018. The Packard Foundation, through its support of MBARI, first matched the NSF support and then 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) and Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs). Christian Ferreira’s efforts have been supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG – German Research Foundation) through its funding to MARUM, and also through grants from the European Union and the Nippon Foundation.
As of release 5.8 in January 2024, there are 456 subscribers to the MB-System User Discusion List, and 60 subscribers to the MB-System Development Discussion List. This interest suggests that despite the availability of a number of high quality commercial software options for seafloor mapping data processing, there is a significant MB-System userbase within the oceanographic and marine technology communities. With long term support for development in place at both MBARI and MARUM, MB-System continues to be a viable, if somewhat under-documented, open source software project. 
In addition to the currently active development team (David Caress, Christian dos Santos Ferreira, Dale Chayes, Jenny Paduan, Kent Headley, Tom O’Reilly, Johannes Schauer, Evgenia Bazhenova), a number of people have made contributions to the code included in MB-System since the early days. 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 Hamphsire)
Suzanne O’Hara (Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)
Bob Covill (Tekmap Consulting, Nova Scotia)
Peter Lemmond (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Hans Thomas (MBARI)
Mike McCann (MBARI)
David Finlayson (USGS)
Nicolas Porras Falconio (CSUMB)
Kyle Dowling (CSUMB)
Jesse Benavides (CSUMB)
Julian Fortin (CSUMB)
Jonathan Beaudoin (QPS; affiliate at CCOM/JHC, University of New Hamphsire)
John Hughes Clarke (CCOM/JHC, University of New Hamphsire; formerly University of New Brunswick)
Hamish Bowman (University of Otago, New Zealand)
Paul Wessel (UH)
Roger Davis (University of Hawaii)
Ammar Aljuhne (MARUM, University of Bremen, Germany)
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)

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.