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Aquaculture 4.0: the technological revolution is coming to the cultivation of fish and algae

07 August 2020
Article by Nelson Gonçalves, specialist in numerical methods applied to the area of ​​sea technologies at INEGI.

The aquaculture industry has seen rapid growth in recent decades, from a consumption share of 6% in 1980 to 46% in 2018. An increase that is already significant, but even more noteworthy considering that fish consumption has increased from 71 million tons to 178 million tons during this period, which means that aquaculture production has in reality increased about 20 times1,2

In Portugal, only 7% of consumption comes from aquaculture, a figure well below the world equivalent. However, it is expected that the aquaculture will grow given its potential to respond to the problems resulting from the decrease in wild fish populations, due to overfishing and climate change. 

More recently, seaweed production in aquaculture has also increased significantly, with world production tripling in less than 20 years. From energy production to food, through applications in the chemical, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industry, this raw material can reach several hundred euros per kg. Also, its capacity to capture and sequester carbon dioxide is a strong incentive for its production, mainly by companies that emit this greenhouse gas. 

Despite this success, the sector faces several challenges, from high operating costs to increasingly deteriorating environmental conditions, which jeopardize its growth. The advent of automation systems and emerging technologies from industry 4.0 promises, however, to have a profound impact and significantly improve the sector's performance as it moves into a future where demand for its products will presumably continue to increase. 

Monitoring technologies add the most value to the production 

The increase in production, which alone contributes to the reduction of costs by the scale factor, together with the adoption of technologies to control production systems and process optimization translates into an increase in the value of fish and algae produced. 

These transformations and the evolution of the industry requires the development not only of structures for production (cages, mooring systems, food distribution systems, fish capture systems, among others), but also other more recent components. Systems for monitoring atmospheric conditions, natural resources (fish, algae, minerals, hydrocarbons) have been integrated into less controlled production systems, in order to predict production, and regulate the supply of food in order to avoid waste or scarcity. Other parameters, such as concentrations of oxygen, carbon dioxide, ammonia, nitrate, etc., and measurements of temperature, pH, or turbidity, are also central to the control of these production systems. 

In cases of aquaculture in inland waters there is also the need to pump water, monitoring and treating it, either in simpler models or in the most complex water recirculation systems (RAS) that require renewal of smaller amounts of water, thus reducing the need to collect water outside the system. 

And if these systems were previously monitored point-to-point, they are now becoming integrated and interdependent, aided by complex machine learning models (neural networks, for example). A change that translates into greater confidence in decision-making, allowing one to control and reduce costs throughout the production chain. 

Industry 4.0 technologies support decision-making, but some challenges remain to be overcome 

Industry 4.0 technologies are currently driving an authentic revolution, in the production of fish and algae, but also molluscs and crustaceans. 

Among the various benefits are, for example, the possibility of replacing periodic preventive maintenance with interventions requested by the systems, only when situations indicating this need are detected. Sensors collect information in real time, processing it to generate complementary information, giving rise to digital systems (digital twins), valuable tools in the aid for decision-making. If artificial intelligence is added to these systems, together with connectivity between equipment, they are even capable of responding automatically taking into account previous experiences. With the proliferation of offshore structures, the communication and automation of these systems is of decisive importance for their operability. 

Associated with offshore exploration, the increasing use of unmanned autonomous vehicles (USVs) also creates new technological challenges, namely in terms of energy production at the site, since connection to the power grid would have prohibitive costs. Among possible solutions, under study, are photovoltaic systems, wind turbines, as well as more disruptive systems such as energy production from waves or tides, and thermal gradients, salinity gradients, or use of piezoelectric materials that convert mechanical energy in electricity. The development of docking systems that allow the exchange of energy and data is also a challenge in the sights of the R&D system. 

In the field of data processing, technology technologies associated with industry 4.0 also play an important role. Monitoring the environment and production chains generates huge amounts of information, making it necessary to use data mining technologies to identify patterns and correlations between parameters. In the course of this analysis, machine-learning models allow automatic testing of various models, leading to the modeling of systems, providing valuable information for decision-making, either automatically through equipment interconnectivity, or for the identification of possibilities for expanding the activity of companies. 

Future of the sector is drawn alongside technological advances 

Although the aquaculture sector is among the slowest to adopt new technologies2, its enthusiasm focused on the opportunities that recent advances can offer the sector is increasingly visible. 

The United Nations report entitled State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020 points to a jump in the volume of aquaculture production by 32% by 2030, which will undoubtedly require further technological innovation. The advent of a new paradigm is inevitable, and the future of this industry is increasingly more sustainable and profitable. 

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