Four Ways Robots Could Transform the Future of Fish Farming

Jan 14, 2016

Experts in fish farming and robotics gathered in Woods Hole, MA, this week to discuss how they could work together to produce more seafood with less money, less risk to humans, and less damage to the environment.

To give you an idea, here's what fish farming in U.S. waters looks like right now.

Currently, about half of all seafood is farmed and experts say the industry could double in the coming decade. That will likely mean expanding aquaculture operations into deeper, off-shore waters. And, because of the greater distance, cost, and risk involved in open-ocean farming, robots and other computer-operated systems are expected to play a larger role.

“Once you move a fish farm away from the coast into more exposed waters that are at greater distance from shore facilities," explains Hauke Kite-Powell, an aquaculture policy research specialist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, "it becomes very expensive to do things there the way they are traditionally done in near-shore farms that rely pretty heavily on people.”

Here are five examples of game-changing ideas put forward at a recent workshop on robotics and automation in aquaculture:

  1. Self-propelled, roving fish cages: The best jobs to automate are those that are dull, dirty, or dangerous. And what's more boring than towing a fish cage at a speed of just a few knots (the only thing neck-breaking about that is the possibility of whiplash from nodding off)? Response Marine of Newburyport, MA, is looking to make this a job of the past with TowDrone, a seventeen-foot long, self-driving tow-boat. Or, you could go one step further, and just put the propellers straight onto the fish cage itself. Both options are in protoype phase.
  2. Meals on demand: Once a fish cage has driven itself to the appropriate location, why bother sending people out there to feed the fish? Instead, some envision cages equipped with a network of sensors that monitor environmental conditions, including oxygen levels, water temperatures, waves, and current speeds. That information could be sent to a computer that would determine when and how much to feed the fish, and then send the command to an automated food dispenser.
  3. Undercover water quality monitor: But why stop with innocuous little sensors placed around the edges of the cage? If you want to know what conditions the fish are experiencing, you need to get in among them. Boston Engineering's Ghost Swimmer is a five-foot long, tuna-, or perhaps shark-shaped, robot that even swims like a fish - with a tail fin, rather than a propeller. It's currently used by the Navy for various reconaissance tasks, but a modified (perhaps less predatory) version could be used to spy on farmed fish, instead.
  4. Underwater maid service: One last thing to complete the robotic fish farm - a net-cleaning robot. Believe it or not, such a thing already exists and is in use in some fish farms, particularly in Europe.

Despite all these exciting ideas, most agree that fully automated fish farming is a long way off, and may never materialize. But there's equal consensus that the next five to ten years will bring big changes in how seafood is farmed.

With a long history of commercial fishing, and both academic and private-sector leaders in ocean research and underwater robotics, Massachusetts is in a position to capitalize on the growth and automation of aquaculture.

"There will still be people there, probably on a daily basis," says David Kelly, chief technology officer for fish farm manufacturer InnovaSea, adding that there will be fewer people and they'll be more efficient, thanks to robotic assistance. "There’ll be more use of robotics for monitoring. Some tasks that are done with a great burst of effort in a short period of time could be spread out with a robot working slower but more continuously around the clock, to do certain functions, like cleaning of nets. And I think you’ll see a balance.”

Growth in both aquaculture operations, and in research and development of new aquaculture technologies, could be a boon to coastal communities in Massachusetts hit hard by the decline in commercial fishing.

"Some communities are already benefiting," says Hauke Kite-Powell, a research specialist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. "In the long term, especially, traditional fishing ports like Gloucester and New Bedford and many others could benefit tremendously from becoming shore bases shore-side support centers for ocean farming.”