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Trusting new technologies

New technologies can be intimidating but when implemented correctly, can open a world of benefits for businesses

November 18, 2021  By Ron Hill

Innovasea’s MCAS user interface at a commercial marine fish hatchery. The system monitors and controls O2 levels, pH, temperature, pumps and more. Photo: Innovasea

The decision to adopt new technology is not one taken lightly at most land-based facilities. Experienced managers and farmers have nightmare stories about technology upgrade projects gone awry, runaway costs, and underwhelming results. Adopting any new monitoring or control system comes with a degree of risk that must be mitigated while the new technology comes online, and staff learn how to work with it. Monitoring and control systems represent a significant investment, especially to smaller operators. A mistake in the monitoring and control system setup could be the death of a farm.

A strong backbone
The critical first step in adopting a new monitoring and control system is evaluating what the farm is doing now, where work is being lost, and what tasks can be automated for maximum gain. Innovasea’s vice president of Aquaculture Services, George Nardi recommends “each farm looking to adopt new monitoring and control systems create a basis of understanding as to what they are doing now and where they want to be. It is important to have an endpoint, a long-term goal, and set up the system accordingly. A monitoring and control system can be built incrementally, as long as you start with a good plan and a good backbone.” 

A backbone is the hardware for the central monitoring and control unit that will display all the information from the monitoring system and allow the user to control the systems. It is the core of a monitoring and control system; all monitoring and control should be hooked up to the backbone. Monitoring and control systems attached to the backbone are displayed on a computer dashboard program to allow for easy operation and observation by staff. Nardi further suggests, “it is best to have just one dashboard for all sensors and systems when setting up your backbone. Make sure it is an open platform so that all probes and systems can ‘talk’ to each other. Avoid closed platform technologies that need probes and systems to be used with exclusive dashboards and exclusive control units [that will not interface/‘talk’ with the backbone].”

Incremental installations
As a monitoring and control system can be implemented incrementally, farmers can adopt a good backbone system and then prioritize the monitoring and control needs for the rest of the farm. Incremental installation means following a list of priorities so that the most critical systems are installed first. Farmers can take on one piece at a time spreading out the investment and implementation into digestible portions. Monitoring units can be adopted without using controls; thus, monitoring sensors can be installed, and control left to technicians. It is important to pace the implementation at a level staff can keep up with. 

“We are always working with the farmers,” comments Mathew Zimola, CEO of ReelData A.I., “We start installing one system at a time, one tank at a time to ensure the system is effective. We work hand-in-hand with the technicians [of our clients] as we implement, maintaining constant communication, constant testing, and listening to their feedback. Depending on the goals of the farm, some will start using only the monitoring portion of our A.I. system and focus only on the data we provide, leaving the interpretation and control to the technicians [instead of implementing the A.I. control units right away].” As staff get comfortable and the technologies prove themselves, measures of control can be adopted as desired.

Safe implementation
When installing new monitoring and control systems, it is key to have overlap with the current system. When installing new systems for extremely important parameters such as oxygen, significant testing must be done to ensure new systems are working properly over a long period of time to build trust. 

During this time of building trust, the current or old way of doing things must be maintained to provide for the fish, and compared to the new monitoring system. “The best way to mitigate risk [when adopting new monitoring and control units] is with a good plan and robust systems,” Nardi suggests. “Monitoring and control systems are highly effective, but not a magic bullet. Every system should have manual override in case the automated system fails. You need to be able to go back to the basics as a last resort.” Disastrous scenarios have played out at farms where an automated valve or switch fails in the open or close position with back up or manual override, thus, no way to move it. 

Getting the team on board
One important aspect of adopting a new monitoring/control system is overcoming the reluctance and hesitance that may be present among the staff, especially with long-established practices or older employees, with new technologies. It can be difficult for staff to see the benefits and return on investment (ROI) when it comes to monitoring and control, especially when the facility has other investment needs. Getting staff on board with a new system is critical because they will be the ones operating it and must be made to see the very real advantages, once the system is up and running. The benefit of the system and how it affects day-to-day work performed by your staff needs to be made clear. 

Staff and monitoring and control
Using a variable frequency drive (VFD) and pressure sensor to control the speed of pumps makes it much easier to keep consistent water flow. Staff, however, may need a relatable example, not just an explanation of what it does. On a practical day-to-day level, adopting a VFD means that staff will not have to juggle or “chase” the flow rate in tanks on the same water line. As flow to a tank is changed by the technician, the water flow in the other tanks on the line changes as well. The technician must adjust multiple tanks multiple times to reset the flow correctly across all the tanks, just because one needed adjusting. This can take a lot of time and the technician must come back multiple times, “chasing” the correct flows. The VFD eliminates this chasing process: the monitoring sensors will sense the pressure drop or increase caused by the technician increasing or decreasing flow to tank, and the VFD will adjust the pump speed keeping all the other flow rates the same. Significant amounts of frustrating, time-wasting work are eliminated and staff will appreciate it once the operation is understood, and their time suddenly not wasted. Staff now have time for other important tasks. Getting staff involved in the setup and implementation is ideal as it provides training and knowledge for future operating and troubleshooting. 

Starting with a good plan, picking the best backbone, and getting the entire staff involved will set farmers up for success with monitoring and control. The options are endless; start with the greatest need and prioritize add-ons in increments to build familiarity and trust.  

Understanding the technology
The sophistication of monitoring and control technology available to land-based farms continues to rapidly increase as new companies develop intelligent monitoring and control systems. The use of A.I. technology to control feeding and greatly increase feed efficiency is what ReelData A.I. offers land-based farmers. 

ReelData A.I. offers smart control solutions for feed systems. ReelData A.I. places cameras in the tank that monitor feed and feed waste. By building a dataset through custom algorithms, the ReelData A.I. system maps appetite and feeding habits. Mapping allows the control system to match the feed dispensed with the mapped appetite of the fish, anticipating how much they need to be fed based on the real-time observations of the cameras and the dataset generated by the algorithm. The result is a highly precise, but flexible feed system that minimizes feed waste to a degree unattainable by conventional methods alone. Once a sufficient data set has been mapped, ReelData A.I. can control some or all feeding, maximizing growth while almost eliminating waste feed, and can notify farmers about changes to fish behaviour consistent with stress. 

The technology looks to decrease cost, enticing land-based operators to look into streamlining their feeding. “The companies we work with are our partners, we are looking for partnerships. Our partners can see the ROI ReelData A.I.’s technology can bring them. In turn, we work hand-in-hand, tank by tank with our partners to build a custom solution and work with their feedback before and after installation is complete,” said Mathew Zimola, ReelData A.I. CEO.

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