Enabling precision aquaculture with real time data and forecasting

undersee precision aquaculture

Aquaculture is a rapidly growing industry and with the right tools, fish farmers can really reap the rewards of this method of farming.

Aquaculture can offer a high volume of product with a better economic yield for farmers while also becoming more environmentally sustainable. Aquaculture is just one way of meeting the world’s demand for high quality protein as the global population rapidly increases. Europe has been at the forefront of safety standards when it comes to aquaculture, with over 25% of the seafood consumed in the EU coming from the sector. The task of improving quality, however, does not end with the opportunity to improve methods; as waters are still at risk of threats that will need to be prevented or corrected. This means that aquaculture farmers still face many challenges, from reducing production costs and labour to losing stock to diseases and water contamination.

Precision aquaculture could help to overcome these challenges. Precision aquaculture is the process of improving the aquaculture method through the use of emerging technologies in order to maximise operations, help in decision making, reduce labour and monitor the fishes. Sustainable aquaculture is needed because fisheries alone will not meet the growing global demand for seafood. Aquaculture can also help reduce pressure on wild fish stocks.

The history of UNDERSEE

One company that is driving the push of the use of technology for use in aquaculture is UNDERSEE. UNDERSEE started in 2016 as project of the company Matereospace (founded in 2014) and progressed into its own fully fledged startup company. Launched under the European Space Agency Business Incubation Centre in Portugal (ESA BIC Portugal), the project developed a multisensory fusion system for water quality monitoring.

Given the lack of water quality data and reliable systems that guarantees a service to do so, for two years, the project built a first prototype for in situ data acquisition system, the UNDERSEE_water and a cloud dashboard for data visualisation, the UNDERSEE_cloud. UNDERSEE uses both COTS and open innovation technology and is applicable to boats and aquaculture cages.

UNDERSEE plug-and-play acquisition system provide real time data to the UNDERSEE_cloud system, which provides real time assessment of critical variables (such as pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen or salinity levels) and automated alarms in case of anomaly.

About 15% of the surface water bodies in the EU are in an unknown ecological state and about 40% in an unknown chemical state. In aquaculture, due to the lack of a real time solution of water monitoring, the economic losses related to the appearance of harmful algal blooms (HABs) has been estimated at €919m per year in the EU. By 2025, UN aims to prevent and reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution.

UNDERSEE_water is a small and easy to install device, equipped with state of the art sensor technology used to collect data from water bodies in real-time. The core parameters measured are:

  • Temperature;
  • pH;
  • Dissolved oxygen;
  • Oxidation-Reduction Potential;
  • Conductivity/Salinity;
  • Turbidity; and
  • Chlorophyll-a.

The dashboard, UNDERSEE_cloud, allows users easy access to several parameters and features, such as:

  • Checking water parameters in real-time;
  • Defining alerts, faults and insights;
  • Reviewing historical data of water quality;
  • Viewing dynamic maps of water data;
  • Validation and calibration of both space data and forecast models against in situ data; and
  • Automated decision making tools based on early warnings.

All these features help the end user to save their fish from sudden quality changes in the water without dealing with sensors maintenance. This will increase animal welfare as well as mitigating environmental impact on the surrounding environment from problems such as diseases.

Marine environments continue to be severely under-sampled and environmental monitoring programmes suffer from unsustainable funding in the long term. UNDERSEE is developing a scalable solution and a sustainable business model in the field of water quality monitoring and environmental impact assessments in rivers, lakes and oceans and is committed to bring knowledge about marine environments by providing simple access to water quality data.


UNDERSEE launched under the ESA BIC Portugal programme, which enables entrepreneurs to receive both business and technical support to set up their business using space technology for nonspace industrial and commercial uses; and during two years of the programme the company was able to develop the first MVP and build the first business case. UNDERSEE also recently completed an Atlantic Area Kick-start activity, a six-month programme in the framework of an ESA Business Applications.

The objectives of this Kick-start activity were to explore the viability of new service and application concepts and consolidate the user landscape including the derivation of user requirements. User needs and requirements were mapped; and the system and service architecture was defined according the feedback collected. The approach was tested with potential users and customers and UNDERSEE learned how to communicate the service in a clearer and more structured way. The company has ongoing discussions and negotiations with the most important stakeholders in Europe in the field of water quality monitoring and is planning a demonstration activity starting in the first quarter of 2020 in the field of this ESA Business Applications programme to implement in a real customer scenario the service explored during the Kick-start activity.

Since the official launch of UNDERSEE in April of 2016 in the field of ESA BIC Portugal, the company has raised over €105,000 in European research grants for developing the technologies that compose UNDERSEE and was able to develop the first value layer of the future service. The full service architecture is composed of the following value layers and correspondent technologies: ‘Real-time water quality data (In situ acquisition system)’, ‘Managing tools (Data Fusion and Web Services)’ and ‘Early warnings (Predictive models)’. Currently, the company has a fully functional solution for the first value layer ‘Real-time water quality data (In situ acquisition system)’ and is starting to evaluate and test Earth observation data products and forecasting solutions to be integrated in the cloud platform.

The full service architecture still requires ongoing hardware and software developments and appropriate project management regarding manufacturing, installation and logistics. The Kickstart activity gave UNDERSEE the necessary credibility to start building long term collaborations with governments, NGOs, research centres, foundations, innovation clusters and industry. Some of these institutions demonstrated interest in co-funding a demonstration project under an ESA Business Applications programme. The full implementation of the service architecture with the three value proposition layers already mentioned is only possible with funding and collaboration with the right partners: “We need to build long term relationships with Research Centres towards value co-creation, if we want to be successful.”

UNDERSEE needs to prioritise the business and service development, and a technology transfer must be effective. A good example of this approach is the KETmaritime Interreg Atlantic Area: a technology transfer programme regarding Key Enabling Technologies (KET) in the field of maritime applications. In the field of this programme, the Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory is currently working with the UNDERSEE’s team to implement state of the art technologies to increase lifetime of in situ sensors regarding biofouling.

Commercial rollout

The UNDERSEE’s service targets are environmental monitoring and aquaculture monitoring segments. UNDERSEE’s solution allows users to monitor and predict water quality changes in rivers, lakes or oceans, without dealing with sensors maintenance. UNDERSEE provides an end-to-end service with an integrated offering of hardware, software, installation, maintenance and customer support, based on a Connected Product-as-a-Service model where customers subscribe for the usage of the product (paying a data-based fee) and automated decision making tools.

For the aquaculture monitoring segment, the service is addressed to open-net pen aquaculture. Shellfish producers or fish farmers can use the UNDERSEE’s solution to prevent production losses and optimise fish feeding and growth. Among other features, users will access predictions about dissolved oxygen for the upcoming days and early warnings via SMS or email about possible algae blooms threats or severe oxygen depletion events. Users will have easy access to a daily management tool that is intended to supply the site manager with relevant and timely information, to make informed management decisions based on actionable data.

During the Kick-start activity, UNDERSEE closed the first monitoring campaign contract with an early adopter for water quality monitoring of Tagus River in Lisbon. This project is funded by MyCOAST – Coordinated Atlantic Coastal Operational Oceanographic Observatory (EU Interreg Atlantic Area). Beside the importance related to the implementation of the UNDERSEE’s solution in a real customer scenario, this achievement will bring to the company much more confidence and visibility to future customers. UNDERSEE’s role in this project is to install the UNDERSEE water in a passenger boat which navigates in a daily basis between the two sides of Tagus River in Lisbon. The boat will stay collecting water quality data to the UNDERSEE cloud for 18 months to validate numerical models developed by the customer.

Understanding the importance of acceleration programmes to prepare the company before the commercialisation phase, in the fourth quarter of 2018 UNDERSEE joined the BLUEBIO VALUE programme in Lisbon, an acceleration programme created in partnership by Oceano Azul Foundation and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. The programme has set four objectives: to feed the world’s growing population; reduce pollutant emissions; face resource scarcity and reduce use of plastics; and develop solutions for the growing elderly population. BLUEBIO VALUE allowed UNDERSEE to start understanding how important the solution is for sustainable aquaculture.

After the completion of this programme, UNDERSEE has been accepted into the Katapult Ocean Accelerator. Katapult Ocean helps build and scale profitable businesses with a positive impact on the oceans. The company has been selected as one of 11 global companies (from the 500 candidate startups) to participate in the first accelerator batch taking place in Oslo from 14 January to 8 April 2019. One of the biggest achievements of this programme was the engagement with research centres, NGOs and fish farmers among other stakeholders in Norway. UNDERSEE is now planning its first pilot in a precommercialisation phase in the field of aquaculture monitoring with Grieg Seafood, one of the world’s largest aquaculture companies, based in Norway. As previously mentioned, the full-service architecture still requires ongoing developments so the commercialisation phase will start after the completion of the demonstration activity project starting in the first quarter of 2020 in the field of ESA Business Applications.

On the road to success

In 2017, UNDERSEE was awarded with the Blue Revelation Diploma: Innovation from the Excellens Mare Awards promoted by PwC, which aims to recognise innovative projects with potential for the future development of sea activities. In 2018, UNDERSEE joined the programme Vodafone Power Lab to receive business mentoring and 3G connectivity support and won the first prize of the BlueBio Value competition with two other startups; attracted an impact investment of USD150,000 from Katapult Ocean (private funding, which invests in startups with a positive impact in the oceans).

In 2019, UNDERSEE was nominated for the Seafood Innovation Prize during the North Atlantic Seafood Forum event in Bergen, Norway, the world’s largest seafood business event; and got complementary funding for Research and Development support from KETmaritime Interreg Atlantic Area. Within other events, UNDERSEE disseminated the project in the Ocean Business Southampton 2019 event and in the European Maritime Day Lisbon 2019 – in this event the CEO of UNDERSEE, Jorge Alexandre Vieira, participated in the session: ‘EU bioeconomy strategy: towards a more circular and innovative blue bioeconomy’. During this summer in September, UNDERSEE team will be showcasing together with other twelve innovators on the main stage of the Aquaculture Innovation Summit in London, UK.

At the end of 2018, UNDERSEE reached one of the most important achievements of the company with the engagement with an early adopter of the service (under MyCOAST project) which represents the beginning of a long-term relationship for future projects and value cocreation. This contract with IST – Técnico Lisboa from the University of Lisbon is a great opportunity to test the reliability of the system in a real water environment and get customer’s feedback regarding both the actual data visualisation features and satellite data fusion from which it can be improved.

Committed to knowledge

UNDERSEE is committed to bring knowledge about marine environments by providing simple access to water quality data. Users including research centres, environmental agencies, municipalities and aquaculture producers can implement the UNDERSEE solution in preventive decision making strategy regarding sudden water quality changes, turning the received information in actionable data.

The idea for the company started when the founder and CEO, Jorge Alexandre Vieira, began studying mechanical engineering at the University of Coimbra in 2013, a course quite complementary to the previously acquired course of civil engineering, and soon realised that he could combine the professional experience with new knowledge to create something innovative.

Vieira was attracted by programmes that existed from technology transfer to new applications in the framework of ESA programmes, however, it was a teacher who gave him the idea to develop technology for monitoring of marine environments. Vieira invited former civil engineering colleagues and new colleagues, still students of the mechanical engineering course, and got to work. Initially, the idea was to start developing a subaquatic robotic vehicle with water quality sensors, but with the acceptance on the ESA Business Incubation Centre programme, ESA BIC Portugal, the idea evolved into a system that would allow to easily install on existing boats, buoys or other maritime platforms to collect water data in real time and combine with space data.

Challenges to come

Aquaculture producers must increase the amount of fish production by 50% until 2030 to meet the increasing demand due to population growth. Even if an algae bloom event is not toxic, an early warning is also valuable to prevent production losses and optimising fish feeding in an aquaculture production. To overcome these challenges, while becoming more competitive in the market, aquaculture companies tend to start supporting their operational decisions based on reliable water quality data and dynamics of the water. But the traditional water monitoring technology requires a lot of human intervention regarding sensors operations and maintenance which normally leads to low quality of data sets since aquaculture companies are focused on the production instead of water quality monitoring tasks.

UNDERSEE allows users to monitor and predict water quality changes in rivers, lakes or oceans, without dealing with sensors maintenance. This means that fish farmers can use it as a daily management tool to prevent production losses and optimise fish feeding and growth.

UNDERSEE is the first commercial solution on the market for water quality data integration (this includes in situ, space data and numerical models) with sensors maintenance free and databased fee subscription. With this model UNDERSEE fills a clear gap in the market regarding a new service for water quality monitoring based on actionable data which enables moving from a reactive decision making to a preventive decision making approach in daily management of aquaculture production. Thanks to this, operation costs will be reduced due to production optimisation based on water data and losses will be prevented due to forecasting tools.

A service like no other

The unique selling point of UNDERSEE is the fact that the service will only be paid when data is received. The integration of in situ data, satellite data and numerical modelling for water quality forecasting for the upcoming days is far beyond any commercial solution available in the market.

The UNDERSEE_water device is a flow-through system similar to those used in Ships of Opportunity programmes, where ships are equipped with flow-through systems (usually called ‘Ferryboxes’). It consists in a bypass circuit of water to the boat main hydraulic system, where all the sensors are placed. These systems are usually operated by Research Centres in the framework of funding programmes. UNDERSEE is currently launching the first Portuguese ´FerryBox´ system in the field of MyCoast project in Lisbon, which water data collected from the passenger boat will be public available through the EMODnet European Central Portal. UNDERSEE will also prepare the flow-through UNDERSEE water system to be able to be implemented directly on aquaculture cages to collect water data in depth each between 5m and 30m deep, which will be an added value to the aquaculture monitoring service.

Concerns over microplastics

Microplastics can be found everywhere on the planet and are impossible to filter out of the water – meaning they eventually end up in our food chain – in fish and consequentially in humans too. UNDERSEE is very concerned about this problem and recently became a member of the international network PlaMoWa Europe – Plastic Monitoring in Waters – R&D network of companies and research institutions. The network aims to develop methods and solutions for a secure, affordable and transparent monitoring of plastic in wastewater streams and surface water. A plastic free wastewater discharge in surface water, e.g. by heavy rain events, is the mission of the network. At the same time, the network follows the vision to identify plastics directly at the source of origin.

In addition, the quality of the wastewater as well as the condition of the surface water shall be continuously monitored. The vision and aims shall support the detailed implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) and provide solutions for the committed stakeholders. To date, there is only a limited number of the required technologies available. The international collaboration with European partners enhances the understanding of the implementation of the MSFD.

In addition, the international development community will enhance the acceptance of innovative developments for performing tasks according to the MSFD in the EU. Jorge Alexandre Vieira from UNDERSEE will take over the role as the international coordinator of PlaMoWa network and hopes to contribute to such a global problem and societal challenge. In the future, UNDERSEE is also planning the integration of a microplastic monitoring system in its ‘FerryBox’, to monitor the microplastic concentration along the vessels routes, following the example of Volvo Ocean Race scientific programmes. UNDERSEE also wants to install the system in sailing boats, because they navigate in areas that commercial vessels do not go, so they can provide in situ data from very remote areas on the ocean.

Also, in this field, last year, UNDERSEE integrated a scientific project with two Portuguese Research Centres – CESAM (Centre for Environmental and Marine Studies from University of Aveiro) and CIIMAR (Interdisciplinary Centre of Marine and Environmental Research from University of Porto) – called ‘MicroPlasTox – Microplastics in the marine environment: estimation and assessment of their ecotoxicological effects’. Funded by the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT), this scientific project aims to fulfil the identified knowledge gaps on the existence of protocols and methodologies for microplastics sampling and quantification and the existence of ecotoxicological data using representative key species.

The obtained data will be made available through an online repository and, based on the experimental results, the information will be used to develop a set of protocols for analytical and ecotoxicological assessments, which will include quality assurance and control recommendations and practices (in Portuguese and English). The scope of UNDERSEE in this project is to collect microplastics samples from marine environments in Portugal up to 50 meters deep, using a proprietary and adapted Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicle (ROV) carrying an innovative microplastics sampling net.

Jorge Vieira


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