Vessel: an autonomous vessel plays one of the key roles as part of the unmanned fish farm facility currently under development in Trondheim, Norway. Illustration: SINTEF
Vessel: an autonomous vessel plays one of the key roles as part of the unmanned fish farm facility currently under development in Trondheim, Norway.

Future fish farms will be unmanned

Robotics technology making inroads into aquaculture sector.

Robotics technology is making inroads into the aquaculture sector, making it possible to regulate facilities from onshore.

Currently, service vessels with several crew members on board are used to carry out day-to-day tasks on fish farm facilities. Such tasks include everything from monitoring fish welfare to inspecting facilities, controlling feed rationing and counting lice.

These operations may become more demanding in the future now that the industry is planning to locate facilities in more open waters, where weather and sea conditions are harsher, an announcement said. This is why researchers are working to assemble a team of robots that can do these jobs.

“There are many advantages to using so-called autonomous and remotely operated systems,” said Per Rundtop, a researcher at SINTEF Ocean. “They require fewer resources, inspections can be carried out around the clock and the safety of personnel ceases to be a problem.”

This is good news to a sector facing tough safety-related challenges.

Researchers from SINTEF and the Norwegian University of Science & Technology, together with developers from companies including Maritime Robotics, Argus Remote Systems and Lerow, are currently working together to enable robotic systems to implement tasks currently carried out by people. The project is called ARTIFEX.

“We have developed a great deal of new technology already -- everything from autonomous vessels to drones and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that can carry out tasks such as inspections and underwater maintenance,” Maritime Robotics chief operating officer Eirik Evjen Hovstein said. "The challenge is to get these technologies working well together.”

Early next year, the technology will be tested at SINTEF ACE’s full-scale laboratory on Norway's island of Frøya. The plan is to get an autonomous vessel to transport an ROV and a drone out to the facility.

“Once at the facility, the vessel will act as a landing platform and base station for the drone, and a launch pad for the ROV. It will also perform tasks by interacting with the ROV,” Rundtop said.

Robots working together

There will be four aspects to the research work in the ARTIFEX project: vehicle design, autonomous systems and airborne and underwater operations.

“For example, the drone will monitor the fish feeding process, while the ROV carries out underwater inspections and tasks such as repair of damage to the nets to ensure that holes do not become large enough to allow fish to escape,” Hovstein said. “All these operations can be monitored and operated by a single person located on shore."

He likened the job to playing a computer game and said it may attract young people, enabling them to "be doing something really useful.”

Half of the funding for the innovation project ARTIFEX is being provided by the Research Council of Norway and half by the industry. The project was launched in 2016 and will be completed during 2018.

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