By Chuck Blumenschein and TJ Willetts
The tide is shifting for the aquaculture industry. The global demand for fish production and the uncertainty of offshore aquaculture is a cause of great concern. As a result, it has become critical to implement sustainable inland fish farms utilizing recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) to increase fish production to meet this global demand.
By Chuck Blumenschein and TJ Willetts
The tidal shift for the aquaculture industry is in perfect sync with another impactful trend – the industrial digitalization era.
For the last several years, “digitalization” and the “industrial internet of things” (IIoT) have been a leading topic of discussion. Companies that successfully harness this digital power stand to disrupt their current business models and sharpen their competitive edge. Aquaculture is starting to follow suit. Companies looking to build large-scale fish farms are exploring the integration of advanced digital technologies, data analysis and algorithms to create smarter and more sustainable grow-out facilities. Fish farms that successfully incorporate smart RAS technologies will significantly reduce their risks and maximize their operational performance.
Risk mitigation may be the most important driver for companies to adopt smart RAS technologies. “Creating a large-scale RAS is a big investment. The construction costs are expensive, but if the farm is not operated properly, the health of the fish is at risk and the business will be inherently unsuccessful. As a result, companies are looking for ways to identify risks affecting fish health and prevent catastrophes before they occur,” according to Jonathan Moir, an aquaculture consultant based in Newfoundland, Canada.
To help reduce risks, RAS technology providers are looking to help firms protect their biomass by deploying robust digital platforms that offer real-time data and alarm management. Using data from sensors and equipment within the fish farm, these advanced cloud-based systems can collect and analyze information in a very powerful way. Specific parameters related to water quality, such as pH, temperature, salinity, carbon dioxide, oxygen levels, ammonia levels, nitrate levels, turbidity, flow rates, and so on, can be monitored in real time. In addition, a digital platform at a RAS facility utilizing advanced algorithms to monitor system parameters can generate emergency alerts and initiate emergency response controls, if necessary.
For example, a RAS’s digital platform can be programmed to monitor oxygen levels to ensure they are maintained within a specific range. If the oxygen level drops below a pre-programmed threshold, the system can automatically engage the emergency back-up systems while simultaneously sending alerts to the operator via email and text message to start to remediate the issue. Remote monitoring and alarm management is especially critical in non-peak operating hours at the grow-out facility. It reduces labor needs while simultaneously providing comprehensive 24/7 monitoring of the facility.
These systems can also integrate other key RAS data, such as feed rates. The system can correlate feed information and its impact on the water quality. For instance, if there are periodic spikes in ammonia levels or suspended solids, a smart RAS can help the operator make data-driven decisions to optimize the feeding plan and make the necessary adjustments to enhance the performance of the RAS related treatment equipment, thereby protecting the biomass.
Beyond monitoring and alarm management, the smart RAS can reduce the possibility of equipment failure using advanced predictive maintenance (PdM). Using artificial intelligence, it can analyze complex data sets from the sensors within the RAS, equipment data, and historic information. This computing power will enable operators to prioritize and schedule maintenance and repairs before any equipment failure that can negatively impact the fish farm.
These technologies can also help with another big challenge for the aquaculture industry – filling the shortage of skilled RAS professionals to operate these next generation fish farms. Machine learning and advanced algorithms specifically related to RAS will continue to become more sophisticated. As a result, companies will be able to modify these systems and develop “virtual RAS systems.” These virtual RASs can be used as a comprehensive, interactive, advanced training tool that can simulate the operations of an inland aquaculture facility.
“Operators can be exposed to realistic scenarios, such as equipment failures or high toxicities within the water. They can then respond to these issues and have immediate feedback on their decisions and actions, all within this virtual environment,” Moir said.
In addition to risk mitigation, aquaculture firms using large-scale RAS are turning to digitalization and enterprise IoT technologies to reduce operational costs, increase fish quality and potentially boost production. As the smart RAS begins to operate, it will generate a large amount of data. Parameters such as water quality, fish growth rates, food consumption, oxygen usage, and equipment data will be tracked and stored in powerful cloud-based computing systems for analysis. Using artificial intelligence complemented with human experience, these systems will be able to quickly identify trends and provide recommendations to the operator to optimize both the RAS and production process. The results will help operators more efficiently use consumables, such as food, oxygen, and chemicals. Similarly, the smart RAS will be able to identify strategies to reduce power and water costs. This will help make fish farms more sustainable and competitive when compared to alternative aquaculture production methods.
As an emerging industry, large-scale RAS companies will benefit from the development and refinement of these technologies from other related industries. Companies like Veolia Water Technologies, a global RAS and water treatment technology company, has been investing in its advanced digital services platform, Aquavista. Veolia is currently implementing its Aquavista system to seamlessly integrate with its large-scale RAS technologies, the RAS2020 and the Kaldes RAS.
“Aquavista was originally designed to manage very complex municipal water treatment systems and our experience in creating powerful cloud-based tools for these applications will expedite the implementation into Veolia’s RAS offering,” according to Lars Christoffersen, a business developer at Veolia who is working on deploying Aquavista for aquaculture.
He adds, “Though it is possible to retrofit existing facilities, firms will most benefit if the RAS is fully-integrated with the data collection and cloud-based tools.”
Consequently, companies that are currently engaged in developing a new RAS project should discuss this subject with their RAS technology partner and consider incorporating these smart RAS technologies into their project.
There are multiple challenges facing the land-based aquaculture industry as it works to be a solution to meet the increasing global demand for fish production. With any emerging industry, the risk is great. It is critical for companies looking to invest in large-scale grow-out facilities to leverage advanced digital tools to protect them from operational risks. These sophisticated software tools could be a potential solution to help educate the next generation of RAS operators by incorporating advanced simulations that are based on real-word data. The digital revolution will ultimately help fish farms to continually improve their operations and become more competitive.
Companies that can successfully implement smart RAS technologies into their facility will be able to increase their operational performance and help create a faster ROI for their investors. Fortunately, the timing could not be more perfect for the RAS aquaculture industry. The digital revolution is beyond its infancy stages and companies who are experienced in RAS are currently integrating reliable and powerful cloud-based technologies to ensure the RAS of the future is here for fish farms of today.
Chuck Blumenschein, P.E., BCEE
Aquaculture Business Development Director
Chuck Blumenschein is a professional engineer and board certified environmental engineer who focuses on providing aquaculture firms with advanced recirculating systems to maximize production and biosecurity. He is skilled at developing cost-efficient RAS systems for innovative aquaculture grow-out facilities.
Veolia Water Technologies – Aquaculture Marketing Manager
TJ Willetts is experienced in marketing and business growth initiatives within the aquaculture industry for Veolia Water Technologies North America. He is responsible for supporting the project development and outreach efforts within the aquaculture industry for innovative RAS systems, intake water treatment, and wastewater treatment.