WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Inventors have found a novel way to combine new technologies together to help fish farmers reduce pollution, reduce costs and improve the yield, and health, of their farm reared Salmon.
When you think about laser-wielding robots that are equipped with the latest machine vision algorithms I bet you didn’t think you’d find them in the dark Fjords of Norway zapping Salmon. Am I right? Of course I am… after all, that’d be silly right? Well, think again.
Currently being used in the North Sea fjords in Norway, and a few select few lochs in Scotland, a smart underwater drone made by Stingray Marine Solutions, who specialise in “optical de-lousing” – yes, that’s a thing – is helping fish farmers deal with the problem of sea lice and pollution. Didn’t know that salmon had lice? Don’t worry, you’re not alone, and obviously I’m not talking about the Salmon you’re eating right now – heavens no, I’m talking about someone else’s Salmon.
“It’s not a problem that’s all that well known outside of the salmon farming industry in Norway,” said John Breivik, general manager at Stingray, “in fact, it’s something that salmon farms are spending a lot of money to fight. The fish parasite itself comes from the wild, but it blossoms when you have a lot of biomass in the same place, which is exactly what you have with farms that have a high density of fish. It’s a problem that’s just exploding.”
These nasty underwater lice attach to salmon and then feed on them. It’s a massive issue, and one that salmon farmers collectively spend more than $1 billion annually battling. Considering that Norway is by far the biggest salmon farmer in the world, accounting for around half the 2.5 million tons of salmon farmed each and every year, it’s an especially big problem there.
Which is where Stingray’s drones come in.
“It’s a unit that you place in each salmon pen,” Breivik continued, “it’s an automated system, kitted out with cameras and lasers that can be guided wherever they’re needed. When a fish swims by, our artificial intelligence (AI) system has image recognition software that detects the sea lice. The device then sends out a guided laser pulse of around 100 milliseconds to destroy them.”
The laser doesn’t injure the salmon because the salmon’s scales are reflective, so the laser bounces off them as if they’re swimming underwater disco balls. The sea lice, which resemble tiny shrimp, don’t fare quite so well, however. They absorb the full energy of the laser blast from a distance of up to 6.5 feet, and immediately fry up.
The image recognition that can spot these individual lice is a bit like the facial recognition tools used by a number of companies, although spotting lice proves a lot more challenging than identifying faces.
“It’s pretty easy to identify a face, with two ears, a nose, a mouth,” Breivik said, “compare that to a sea lice a couple of millimeters in size, that’s sitting on a moving target, and which needs to be dealt with in just a few milliseconds before the fish swims away.”
Amazingly, the technology works incredibly well. First made available in 2014, it’s since expanded to more than 100 salmon farms in Norway, and it arrived in Scotland at the end of 2016.
Just one device can obliterate tens of thousands of lice every single day, and that’s great for Norwegian salmon farmers, great for machine vision technology, and great for Salmon lovers everywhere. However, if you’re the company that was supplying medicines and chemicals to those same fish farms then, well, the news isn’t so great and it might be time to think of a new line of business.
The new technology though could also be great news for Africa where many people on the continent have protein poor diets, and where fish farms – that don’t take up the same vast tracts of land or resources – could make the difference between living and thriving. Couple that with the fact that the African fish farmers wouldn’t have to spend money on expensive chemicals and chemical treatment systems and all of a sudden fish zapping laser robots aren’t as funny as they sound. Who’d have thought it!?