Blue growth: remote monitoring and energy for fish farms

blue growth

Smalle Technologies has developed a range of smart, environmentally friendly products to boost sustainability in the blue growth sectors of aquaculture and offshore energy.

As defined by the European Commission, blue growth is the long term strategy to support sustainable growth in the marine and maritime sectors as a whole. This definition poses a requirement that both the economic growth, and also the sustainable and inclusive dimension of the strategies are to be adopted. Thus, it is essential to focus on commercial exploitation of the European seas, by means that can preserve the health of the marine environment.

According to figures provided by the EU, Europe’s maritime sector employs an estimate of 3.5 million people into jobs and generates more than €500 billion annually; it is estimated that output can be doubled by 2030. Moreover, the blue sector presents a potential to create many more jobs in the following years. The EU government has emphasised that it should not miss this opportunity.

One of the components of the EU strategy for the blue growth is the development of sectors which have a high potential for sustainable jobs and growth – such as aquaculture and ocean energy.

Aquaculture and marine energy as key sectors in the blue growth strategy

Aquaculture presents a worldwide growth rate of around 6 per cent a year, this has been consistent in the last decade, while the equivalent parameter for the harvesting of wild fish has been close to zero per cent for the same period. Nowadays, aquaculture represents more than 50 per cent of the worldwide production of seafood. However, this rate is lower for the European Union – about 20 per cent – and EU’s aquaculture output has been more or less the same in volume since 2000. The efforts within EU aquaculture seems to have been more focused on reaching high quality, sustainable and consumer protected standards, and providing added value to EU production, rather than to increase the production volume.

The EU aims to promote the blue growth and aquaculture sector using four factors:

  • Administrative simplification;
  • Improving access to space and water;
  • Increasing competitiveness; and
  • Exploiting the sustainable practices of EU aquaculture and high quality products.

For the last two actions – increasing competitiveness and sustainable practices – further development of the technology in that sector is a must.

Marine energy, also known as ocean energy, is another key sector for blue growth. It is estimated that marine energy could supply 10 per cent of the electricity demand in the EU by 2050. The EU seas and oceans generate a vast amount of energy in motion that can be converted into electricity; marine energy has the potential of providing a substantial amount of new renewable energy around the world. Unfortunately, the marine energy technologies are less developed than other renewable energy sources, such as photovoltaic or wind energies.

Europe is currently leading the development of marine energy, gathering the efforts of EU, national governments and private companies. The main challenge is related to the harsh and changing sea conditions, which makes it difficult to construct reliable and cost-effective devices. However, some European blue growth energy projects are close to commercial deployment.

Benefits of technological advancement in aquaculture

The technology used in aquaculture has quickly evolved in recent decades from very simple domestic cages, to the high-tech salmon facilities that can be found currently. Moreover, the adoption of technology is also dependent on the fish species being farmed, and the size and commercial strength of the farm. Nowadays, there are many EU aquaculture facilities whose productivity could increase significantly with the use of more developed blue growth technologies.

In order to enhance the growth and survival rate of the species, different technologies can be applied. Traditionally, the efforts in technology development within the sector have been on the study of the food and additives used to feed the fish and the vaccines required to prevent diseases. These days, there are other blue growth technologies in fish farming which are being adopted from other sectors, such as in-land farming and offshore oil and gas plants. In fresh water systems, hydrodynamics of the tank for its more convenient design, or the implementation of water recirculation systems in some facilities are two examples of current technological innovations. For sea farms, examples of technological advances include development of more robust cages in order to allow offshore farms and the integration of multi-trophic aquaculture as an effective cost method for the reduction of the waste products on the seafloor.

The benefits of technology in the fish farm sector are tangible and substantial. For example, one person managing an automated system for counting shrimp post-larvae can replace two people counting by hand; while doing the job five times faster and with an increased accuracy by 60 per cent. Other examples include the numerous blue growth systems that perform smart feeding of fish, using cameras or sensors to detect when the fish are fed enough, which can save up to 20 per cent of the feed cost. More cases of beneficial technologies can include artificial intelligence (AI) applied to enhance decision-making and computer vision software employed to determine fish weight.

Real time monitoring using remote sensors in fish farms

A fast-growing technological innovation incorporated in blue growth is the development of real time remote monitoring systems. Farmers need to carry out periodic onsite measurements of the water quality in order to ensure the safety and adequacy of the living conditions of the fish in their immediate environment. The appropriate parameters to be measured depending on the fish species; however, water temperature is almost always required. Moreover, dissolved oxygen concentration, water current, pH, salinity, turbidity or hardness are other water properties commonly required for suitable fish growth. These water parameters are traditionally measured by technical staff using hand-held instruments, taking a reduced number of recordings during the working hours.

However, the variation of one of the key water parameters beyond a safe level can be produced in hours, going ignored by farm technicians. This can lead to undesirable effects such as poor growth, undetected disease symptoms and/or abnormal behaviour of the fish. Moreover, the persistence of that undesired situation over a long period of time can increase fish mortality.  And what is worse: the farmer would not know the variation of the water quality indicator related to the cause of the issue.

For these reasons, the real time monitoring of the water and farm conditions is highly appreciated by the farmers. Blue growth technology can provide a great deal of information in short intervals, which allow a more accurate planification of the farming activities; the triggering of alarms in case of unsafe water conditions, the immediate correction in terms of time or intensity in fish care tasks, and also the construction of a comprehensive database that would help the scientists to carry out detailed and specific studies in order to improve the efficiency of the farm in the long run. In addition, the remote visualisation of the measurements on an internet-based platform is also valued by the users, particularly in the marine farms, where the cages sometimes cannot be accessed quickly and at the desired time. Furthermore, the visualisation of the pond parameters on an office computer screen or on a portable device is also welcomed by inland freshwater farmers.

An example of a remote monitoring system currently exemplifying blue growth is the OxyForcis, designed and manufactured by Smalle Technologies. Units of that remote sensor are currently operating in both marine and freshwater fish farms in Spain. The OxyForcis measures the water dissolved oxygen and temperature using an optical sensor placed inside the cage or the pond. The oxygen measurements are received by an electronic unit placed outside the water, firmly attached to the pond walls or cage structure, which is contained in a sealed box and self-powered using a small solar panel. The data can be recorded in that unit and sent to a remote server on the internet using wireless communications, at user-defined intervals. In the inland farms, the OxyForcis triggers an alarm which is then sent to the farm supervisor’s mobile phone when the dissolved oxygen fails under a predefined value, or temperature reaches some other predefined value. This provides an opportunity to the supervisor to immediately perform corrective actions, such as activate the oxygen-injection systems. Moreover, this information is also useful to reduce the food waste, improve fish welfare and control the fouling formation on the network in the saltwater farms.

Water current is also a relevant parameter for saltwater farmers. Smalle Tech offers an oceanographic measurement system, DataForcis, which can be placed in an autonomous buoy equipped with a group of sensors, an electronic transmission unit and a power supply set based on solar panels. The most usual configuration of that buoy is with a water current sensor (an acoustic profiler) and a weather station, which can give valuable information such as wind direction/velocity and air temperature in a cost-effective manner.

The water current measurements performed by the DataForcis are useful to blue growth in a multitude of ways. First, the technology can help to prevent damage to the cages and determine if it is safe to perform maintenance work during episodes of strong currents; secondly, it can avoid the feed waste produced by excessive water flow; thirdly, it can indicate if the water flow has pushed hard on the cage, deforming its shape, and confining the fishes in a smaller volume, consequently making them stressed; and finally, the profiler gives information of the water velocity at a number of points along the vertical axis, so you can determine the current strength, not only at the heights with more fish concentration, but also at several heights under the cage. That information can be used to study the impact of the nutrient loadings on the sea beneath the cage.

Other blue growth technological solutions

Smalle Technologies is currently developing further technologies such as the EyeForcis, an autonomous buoy equipped with a thermal camera that can send a real time image of the facilities – in continuous streaming or every few seconds – to an inland server. The device can be a cost-effective solution for surveillance tasks in marine fish farms. After deploying the device, security staff can control the cages from land and set sail only when somebody enters the restricted area of the farm. Moreover, the obtained recording could be used as evidence if legal actions are taken.

Powering remote sensors with marine energy

As mentioned in previous paragraphs, marine energy represents a vast source of renewable energy, with high potential of development. Moreover, blue growth can represent a clean alternative to fuel generators and non-rechargeable batteries powering data buoys and remote sensors in sea applications.

The electronic systems in buoys and marine monitoring devices, such as sensors, dataloggers or transmission systems, are usually powered by means of solar panels. They can be seen powering the electronic systems not only in fish farms, but also in many agricultural farms. However, there are some blue growth applications where these panels are not a definitive solution. For example, some oceanographic buoys implement a specific instrumentation with a power consumption that cannot be fully satisfied with the solar panels fitted on its body. Some latitudes only have a few sun hours, in which case solar panels will present very poor performance. Furthermore, solar panels can offer issues even in sunny places. The panels experiment a significant decrease of their performance due to fouling and salt deposition while in operation on the sea. Additionally, a considerable number of solar panels are stolen from buoys and fish farms to be used in domestic installations in land, particularly from the ones placed relatively close to the shore.

In these cases, where solar panels are not solving power supply problems, wind micro-turbines, fuel generators and primary batteries are used. Micro turbines are a clean and sustainable blue growth solution and can provide a reasonable amount of energy in windy places, however, their optimum performance is limited to a relatively narrow range of wind velocity. Harsh sea conditions, with salt water corrosion and sudden wind gusts, can lead to frequent turbine maintenance and even cause turbine damage. Some buoys placed in dark latitudes are filled up with non-rechargeable batteries, which often contain hazardous materials and present potential toxic and safety risks. Furthermore, some monitoring systems at sea include a rechargeable battery that is periodically filled up, connecting a portable engine-generator that burns fuel, creating air pollutants.

In contrast, small-scale wave generators can provide electricity to buoys and marine monitoring devices in a clean and renewable way. The eForcis is one of these generators. Developed by Smalle Technologies, the generator has been tested in several Mediterranean locations, such as Barcelona and Castellon, in a buoy of the Spanish national port authority located in Mahon, and in the Atlantic coast of Ireland; providing energy for the sensors and electronic transmission systems of the buoy or the marine farm monitoring systems. The eForcis electricity production is independent from the weather and sea conditions as it is sealed in a box and not affected by water, salt or any other corrosive element. Moreover, it was designed considering the environment, there are no dirty/toxic emissions being released and it has a long lifespan. Smalle Tech is currently developing a data buoy with an embedded eForcis, the BeForcis, with a geometry designed to maximise the energy production of the generator.

Smalle Tech for blue growth

Smalle Technologies is a spinoff of the University of Barcelona, established as a company in 2012. They develop products and services for real time monitoring in marine fish farms whilst exploring new sources of clean energy, in order to decrease fossil fuel dependency and help repair the environment.

The Smalle Tech team is made of physicists and engineers focused on research, development and innovation for blue growth. They are supported by a business and scientific board which brings forwards extensive knowledge and experience; and the company has received support from several institutions and companies such as InnoEnergy, Fundación Repsol, Centro para el Desarrollo Industrial (CDTI), Empresa Nacional de Innovación (ENISA) and the European Commission, through Horizon 2020 SME Instrument grants (Phase I and II).

Smalle Technologies wants to contribute to the global food, energy and natural resources sustainability through innovation in blue growth sectors such as aquaculture and offshore clean energy. Smalle Tech is part of the blue economy, a driver of Europe’s welfare and prosperity.

Hector Martin

CEO

Smalle Technologies SL

+34 647 826 099

info@smalletec.com

https://smalletec.com/

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