Information and digital technologies can make aquaculture more resource- and energy-efficient
This article is adapted and summarized from the original publication (Yue, K. and S. Yubang. 2021. An overview of disruptive technologies for aquaculture. Aquaculture and Fisheries, Volume 6, Issue 3, May 2021). In this second and final part, the disruptive potential of various information and digital technologies is discussed.
Aquaculture has developed significantly in the past 50 years but there is still much to be done to improve its profitability and sustainability. Here we discuss several information and digital technologies that have the power to significantly further revolutionize the aquaculture industry (Fig. 5) and in some cases are already doing so.
Commercial aquaculture production typically is a complicated process and characteristically can include many steps like feeding, cleaning tanks and nets, monitoring animal behavior, removing sick or dead animals, and others generally labor-intensive and costly and difficult to improve or optimize without the use of machines. In addition, the aquaculture industry has few customized systems that can work universally for all, or even a few, aquaculture species, because of the high diversity of aquaculture species and production systems.
From a technological perspective, the solutions for many of these complicated tasks in aquaculture exist. Robots can be efficiently used for many tasks like feeding, cleaning production facilities and components, injecting vaccines and other routine activities, and have the potential to carry out several laborious and risky activities. For example, automated underwater robots are used in the regular inspections and cleaning of cage nets in the salmon industry, requiring fewer people directly involved in risky operations. Robots have also been used to survey animal health and behavior in real time, and to monitor and prevent escapes of farmed fish. They can also make aquaculture more efficient as robots can work continuously without interruptions, including under dangerous environmental conditions, and without the need for human assistance.
Many research institutes and companies – for example, Robot fish, Cermaq, Innovasea, SINTEF, SeaVax, Sublue and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AUV lab – have developed and continue improving various types of robots for aquaculture. Despite many promising robotic products, it is important to note that fully automated aquaculture is still currently impossible and may not materialize in the short term (e.g., five to 10 years). However, it is certain that the next five to 10 years will bring substantial changes in how aquatic animals are cultured with the assistance of robots. It should also be noted that any automation using robotics must consider the specificity of each species, culture systems and the different culture environments.
Like for robots, drones can do a lot of work above and below the water for the aquaculture industry. Drones are able to monitor fish farms on land and in sea, especially at offshore aquaculture sites. Several routine activities, including checking the integrity of cages and nets, can be efficiently carried out by drones. Many research institutions and companies, including Subblue, Qifai, Apium Swarm Robotics, Blueye Pioneer, SeaDrone and others are developing and producing drones for aquaculture.
More importantly, drones can collect some information difficult to obtain otherwise that can be used to generate algorithms for further developing technologies to improve the efficiency of aquaculture production. For example, Saildrone collects farm data, analyzes fish stock and tracks environmental conditions. These data could easily be applied to aquaculture. Drones in combination with artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing will cut costs and improve operations for the aquaculture industry. It is estimated that drone market in agriculture and aquaculture is worth (U.S.) $5.19 billion by 2025.
Sensors can be used to collect water parameters, including dissolved oxygen (DO) levels, pH values, salinity, turbidity and pollutant concentration. In fact, many of the above-mentioned robots and drones use sensors to obtain data in real time in water. In the aquaculture industry, biosensors have been developed and applied to analyze DO levels, water salinity and temperature, among other water quality parameters. In the salmon farming industry, the heart rate and metabolism of individuals can be monitored and recorded.
Using underwater sensors connected to the internet, the hunger status of cultured fish in cages, ponds and rivers can be monitored, and thus feeding can be adjusted accordingly. Proper feeding according to hunger status can substantially improve feeding practices and reduce the waste of feeds, thus reducing total production costs.
In Europe, a consortium of marine scientists, aquaculture companies, fish farmers and research engineers is working to develop an automated and integrated platform to detect and monitor chemical contaminants, harmful algae blooms, pathogens and toxins. Norway’s AKVA Group has built a huge cage for offshore aquaculture with sensors and cameras, and China has developed several deep-sea cages with many sensors to monitor water quality, hunger status of fish, net status and fish movement.
Sensors in water in combination with cloud management and mobile connectivity will maintain the ideal environment for fish and supply optimal feeding for growth and feed conversion. In the future, it is essential to develop real-time sensors to measure the stress level of individual fish and to detect pathogens in water. These sensors should be easily inserted into live fish or put in water and be able to deliver strong signals, which could be detected by devices on land, boats or satellites.
Although robots, drones and sensors empower the rapid and real-time collection of many types of data, it often is still difficult to make appropriate decisions using the collected data due to its large volume and diversity. Several research institutes and aquaculture technology start-ups have been studying and applying artificial intelligence (AI) to make better and faster decisions. Through AI, aquaculture production and management of many operations can be rapidly increased and made more efficient, typically by making operations less labor-intensive. This can happen at many activities, for example, use of autofeeders, water quality control, harvesting and processing. In aquaculture, wastage of inputs can be managed through AI and costs can reportedly be reduced by up to 30 percent. Consequently, AI can help provide increasing control over aquaculture production systems while reducing various inputs like labor, maintenance and others.
However, AI still has limits, usually related to the limited data available for application. Data sets are becoming increasingly important, and it would be important for large, integrated farms and aquaculture companies to share some of their data used for aquaculture production and marketing. We believe that only with sufficient and adequate data for each species, production technology and different culture conditions, and the establishment of databases in public domains, will researchers and farmers be able to use a broader variety of sample data to develop improved algorithms to make more appropriate, timely production and management decisions.
Augmented and virtual realities
Augmented reality (AR) is an interactive experience in the environment of the real-world. Visualization of objects in the real world are strengthened with the assistance of computer-generated perceptual information. In AR, objects produced by a computer are used to improve the impression of real-world experiences by adding clarity and data. Aquaculture activities are highly variable, unforeseeable, laborious and dependent upon the species, location and aquaculture systems and AR can decrease operation cost and facilitate drone and robot operations, including monitoring fish behavior, net holes and dead fish. With the assistance of AR, aquafarmers may gain a better overview in production places and complete operations more effectively and with reduced risk.
AR has been used in the aquaculture industry to increase the efficiency of field production, monitor and analyze mortalities, health status and measure many water parameters. An AR plus cloud system was recently designed to improve in-situ water quality data collection and query. Another application of AR in the aquaculture industry is in teaching and education. For example, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NUST) has developed and applied AR and virtual reality (VR) in teaching students about fish welfare, disease prevention, escaping fish and dangerous working conditions.
Virtual reality (VR) is a technology that can convert different environmental situations into a digital interface by putting virtual objects in real-time and the real world. VR can be watched through many experiences, enabling users to locate life-size 3D models in their environment and/or show contextual information. In the aquaculture industry, there are several potential applications of VR, including in teaching and education.
For example, VR has been applied to stimulate the interest in aquaculture of young people in Norway, and a VR system has been developed to enable students to see real activities and situations of a fish farm. In China, a university has also developed/constructed a virtual simulation platform that can rely on VR, multimedia and human-computer interactions to simulate and manage the conditions of traditional college experiment teaching. VR could also be used for consulting purposes in the aquaculture industry, and the combination of VR with internet of things, IOT will broaden the applications of VR in teaching, education and consulting.
3-D (three-dimensional) printing enables the production of a 3-D solid object from a digital file, with the end product an object printed with additive processes. In the printing procedure, the object is generated by laying down several layers of materials, until the object is completed. With development of digital and printing technologies, 3-D printers are becoming more affordable. In aquaculture, the application of 3-D printing is just in its infancy, although the technology has already been used to print hydroponic systems and fish robots. Recently, prototypes of three-dimensional vitrification devices were printed using the 3-D printing technology for sperm vitrification of aquatic species. These systems enable quick and cost-effective preservation of sperm and are suitable for small-scale freezing for research purposes on small aquatic species with tiny testis and also for fieldwork at remote locations. A 3-D printed water sensor system to detect water parameters, including temperature, oxygen level and pH has been under development.
There are several challenges to adapt 3-D printing to aquaculture, including equipment cost, manufacturing cost, post-processing requirements and limited materials, which can be used in water and other places. To address these challenges, aquaculture scientists, fish farmers, engineers and software developers must work together to make the 3-D printing technology better fit products and business models to develop cost-effective implementation for the aquaculture industry.
Blockchain was introduced in 2008 by Nakamoto as the data management mechanism in the system of Bitcoin cryptocurrency. In blockchain, data are decentralized, in which no individual, no corporation or no government owns or controls these data while they are shared by everyone. Its major advantages are that the data in the chain formed by blocks of data are secured and are tamperproof. For example, blockchain-based applications are developed and applied to support data sharing, payment processing, money transfers, distributed cloud storage systems and digital identity protection.
The aquaculture industry has generated and collected huge amounts of data. However, these data are usually not shared by different players and therefore, may not have been used effectively. With the blockchain technology, the supply chain in the aquaculture industry can go digital, which enables full traceability from farm to consumers and can and will further connect global stakeholders together. The blockchain technology is able to safely and effectively collect, share and analyze huge data sets from different parts of the aquaculture industry (Fig. 6).
This technology could greatly benefit the aquaculture industry by helping to better address existing and future issues related to food traceability costs, food fraud, food waste and food-related diseases. Blockchain in aquaculture is able to reduce transaction processing time, enhance the relationships of reliability and trust among the producers, retailers, consumers, governments and certification bodies. Digital traceability is a critical step to ensure food safety, and blockchain-based tools are being developed and applied in the aquaculture industry.
To enjoy the benefits of blockchain tomorrow, it is essential now to in invest in the further application and adoption of this emerging technology by farmers, processors, shippers, distributors and retailers in the aquaculture industry. The application of a blockchain solution for most issues in the aquaculture industry is basically similar to a major software development project, requiring everything from a software backbone to hardware sensors, to processing power and more, and costs will likely be a roadblock in some instances.
Internet of Things
The internet of things, IoT [network of physical objects with embedded software, sensors and other technologies for connecting and exchanging data with other systems and devices over the Internet] is increasingly playing a larger and growing role in many industries. IoT, although relatively new to the aquaculture industry, can certainly help connect massive volumes of streaming data across all the components of the entire aquaculture industry. The technology brings new opportunities to improve production and management, including more efficient and timely data acquisition and decision-making, not just to the farm production components of the industry, but also to the entire farmed seafood value chain.
IoT technology can provide significant support to the aquaculture industry; for example, the environmental conditions at aquaculture production sites can be more effectively monitored in real-time and with higher coverage by incorporating many underwater cameras and sensors across multiple cages. Also, allowing for better environmental management by monitoring the effects of fish farms on the surrounding environment continuously and on time. And IoT, in combination with machine learning with data acquired over time, can be applied to generate predictive models. There are many other instances where IoT can help improve the aquaculture industry globally.
These predictive models will support making better and more adequate decisions and providing timely alerts for many potential risks. IoT with big data solutions can further revolutionize the aquaculture industry by making it more productive, sustainable and profitable, safer and easier to manage its risks, by making processing systems and supply chains much more interconnected. However, application of IoT technologies in remote marine aquaculture sites is still a practical challenge, where information acquired from sensors remote to the main fish farm are required to be sent elsewhere globally.
Aquaculture has played an important role in supplying high quality proteins and has been the fastest growing sector in food production for over 20 years. Due to the ever-increasing population on earth and improvement of incomes of people, the requirement of seafood will substantially increase in the coming decades. The expansion of aquaculture requires novel and disruptive technologies. Fortunately, several emerging and disruptive technologies have the potential to further revolutionize much more the global aquaculture industry. These technologies include robotics, information and digital technologies, offshore farming, RAS, replacement or supplementation of marine ingredients, and oral vaccines.
Although the aquaculture sector has been slow to adopt new technologies, many players have realized that recent advances in many cutting-edge technologies can offer opportunities to the industry. However, there are great gaps between the availability of novel and disruptive technologies and their real applications in the aquaculture industry. Integration of various technologies into different aquaculture systems is a complicated process. It requires a combination of different types and quantities of aquaculture equipment, including oxygen enrichment facilities, feeding equipment, different types of sensors water treatment equipment, and others.
Aquaculture facilities need compatible communication interfaces, transmission modes and other parameters for the various equipment. Therefore, the integration of various equipment requires the establishment of a uniform standard for the parameter design of aquatic facilities, and selection of equipment according to this standard. The layout of the facilities in the integrated aquaculture system should be optimized to maximize their efficiency. Then, all types of equipment will be connected to the IoT platform for monitoring and control.
All these factors make it highly impossible for a single farmer or aquaculture company to accomplish this complicated task. Therefore, fish farmers, fish scientist, engineers, software developers and economists should work together to effectively integrate these technologies into all components of the aquaculture value chain. Government agencies may supply research funds on multidisciplinary projects on this front while aquaculture extension stations, venture capital and investors may support novel start-ups for integrating disruptive technologies into the aquaculture industry.
Several emerging and disruptive technologies will continue to significantly make the aquaculture industry more resource- and energy-efficient. These technologies will also generate opportunities for businesses and jobs, including opportunities for women and younger people. Some of these technologies may generate barriers for small and family-based fish farmers without the financial resources to adopt them, and it is essential to ensure that emerging technologies are made available to all.
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