Aquaculture is a relatively new industry, with the most established farms having only really started in the late 20th century. But it’s grown to such an extent that today, seafood from aquaculture now accounts for over half of all the fish we eat worldwide. Given the negligible scope for capture fisheries to increase their harvests — it may only be a matter of time before we pull the last fish out of the ocean — aquaculture is now poised to feed a hungry planet and meet the increasing demand for seafood. One thing it will need to fulfil this task is technology.
Enter the Internet of Things, or IoT. Companies and startups are turning to IoT to develop systems that pull data from various sensors and satellites. This data is then put to use to make operations more efficient using cloud-based analytic software tools. Every item of equipment across the production chain can be interconnected through IoT. Cloud computing also provides a virtual storage place and pathway for the vast amounts of data and programmes that need to be stored and accessed. This enables better collaboration between developers situated remotely, offers a clearer understanding of what is happening across a farm, and enables decisions to be made swiftly if a farm is likely to encounter any problems.
Farmers can gather information through cameras, digital image data acquisition equipment and temperature, humidity, light and other sensors for water quality parameters. Data on the health of fish and environmental parameters can then be transmitted to a control center through communication nodes with data processing and decision-making performed in the cloud. Integrating technology and the whole industrial chain of aquaculture production, operation, management and service also means that, for example, an aerator system can precisely control the aerator, circulating water treatment equipment and cleaning equipment to achieve good water quality. Or, an automatic fish divider could pool and harvest fry of different sizes and ages, while fault diagnosis and early warning systems are constantly on alert to guarantee safe operations.
Put simply, farmers get the visibility they need to do the following:
–> Stay on top of fish health. Farmers can foresee everything from fish growth rates to environmental threats like algal blooms thanks to real-time monitoring and management.
–> Decrease the amount of waste from feed. They can tell when their fish are being overfed and predict how much the fish will eat based on temperature, health, time of year and other factors, resulting in less feed waste.
–> Comply with regulations. Because healthy fish don’t need antibiotics, farms are able to prove that they are complying with particular regulations or sustainability requirements.
What IoT Technologies Are Driving Aquaculture?
My work over the past few months has shown just how important IoT is in aquaculture. The Climate Smart Pilots (CSP) project in New South Wales, Australia, was launched in 2018. It’s working to understand how digital technology can help oyster farmers on the Clyde River estuary track and respond to changing conditions through data collection and decision-making tools. Last month I spoke to the project team and heard about their IoT sensors for salinity and water temperature, an automatic weather station that provides on-farm data, a cloud-based system to store and process the data, and a dashboard for data access, visualisations and alerts. The data is transferred to a cloud platform where AI and other analytical software converts it into predictions about local weather and havesting conditions. The team told me that local, real-time data is giving farmers plenty of information on what’s happening on their farms, what changes might occur, and helping them make decisions with confidence.
Meanwhile in Malaysia, researchers I spoke to at Universiti Putra Malaysia have found that with young people drawn to the concept of smart aquaculture, IoT and AI are actually attracting them to aquaculture and addressing the problems of an ageing workforce and declining populations in rural areas. The university team are using IoT to detect changes in water quality parameters, analyse data and provide fish and shrimp farmers with information to enable better decisions. Thanks to IoT, farmers have much more information on the health status of the species they are rearing (All photos below taken by Dato Prof Dr Mohamed Shariff bin Mohamed Din, Universiti Putra Malaysia).
One of the challenges facing IoT is poor connectivity, and this hasn’t gone unnoticed by UK firm R3-IoT. Co-founder and CTO Kevin Quillien told me that poor connectivity must be addressed if aquaculture wants to digitize, and that satellite-enabled connectivity platforms such as the one his company is developing can help to provide end-to-end data services from smart devices anywhere, regardless of existing infrastructure.
These are just three examples of IoT in aquaculture, but there are many more initiatives out there, such as systems that can count and size organisms like shrimp larvae or submersible devices that can analyze particles in water using microscopes and machine vision (these can also serve as early-warning tools for detecting harmful algal blooms).
It’s interesting to see that although aquaculture is the fastest-growing food sector in the world, technologically it’s only recently getting on board, while many other factors need to be addressed such as implementation costs, reliable, intelligent algorithms, long-term stable operation equipment and data security. Aquaculture will also require more IoT research and economic analysis to identify ways for IoT and other technology to be economically viable. I also believe that acceptance is still a key issue for IoT’s full implementation, and that over time, proof of value will be among the many ways in which IoT could be boosted in the industry. But, IoT will help increase profitability for farms, improve control and increase production. This, in turn, reduces risk and creates information, opening up opportunities for more significant investment and further industry growth overall. A combination of different technologies and systems all working together will no doubt continue to improve the many stages of fish and shellfish farming operations, enabling aquaculture to take great strides in the future.