New robotic technology is solving a long-time problem for the aquaculture industry by repairing nets by remote control, helping ensure a valuable food resource continues to thrive.
Aquaculture plays a critical role in global food security. In Australia, as seafood demand increases along with the population, the industry has grown to be worth more than $3 billion.
Much of this expansion has been driven by the production of farmed salmon in Tasmania that supplies both domestic and export markets and adds significant value to the regional economy.
But the industry faces an ongoing challenge central to its optimal operation: ensuring the nets that contain the fish in underwater pens are maintained. Breakages in nets must be fixed as quickly as possible. Fish loss not only impacts profits, but also represents environmental risks associated with farmed fish entering the wild – breaches for which businesses can be penalised.
Net repair is traditionally a dangerous exercise for divers and an expensive, time-consuming job, costing aquaculture enterprises millions of dollars each year.
But now new underwater robotic ‘stitching’ technology developed by Southern Ocean Subsea (SOSub) is enabling nets to be repaired efficiently, inexpensively and safely by remote control.
“The SOSub technology represents a significant cost reduction and increased safety for the aquaculture industry, so overall it’s a very good proposition,” says i4 Connect Commercialisation Facilitator Taylor Tran, a strategist with more than 20 years’ experience in technology commercialisation, who has provided guidance to the company throughout their successful Accelerating Commercialisation grant application process and continues to support them in their path to market.
SOSub’s state-of-the-art remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) are ‘flown’ by land-based pilots using cameras to identify breakages in the nets – and repair them.
Equipped with a novel tool that repairs nets by releasing new netting material that is clamped to existing infrastructure, the ROVs can travel faster than divers and to depths well beyond human limitations.
This eliminates the costly process of raising nets that are too deep for divers to fix, and reduces safety risks for commercial divers who are instead freed up to focus on other tasks requiring greater dexterity, says SOSub co-founder Andrew Ford, himself a commercial diver for 35 years and experienced ROV pilot.
“Pens have been getting bigger and deeper, which restricts divers working on inspections and repairs. They’re not licensed to work deeper than 30 metres, so cranes are often needed lift the pen up,” he says. “To fix a small hole could take several hours and lots of money. And then you need a recompression chamber onsite and it all becomes too hard.”
The capability of the ROVs to work to depths of 300 metres, and in murkier conditions and stronger currents than are safe for divers, means the ROVs will support growth in the industry, as pens are installed deeper and further out to sea, Ford says.
They can also be used to repair predator nets that sit below pens preventing species such as seals from targeting farmed fish.
“If seals get through the predator net, they work together, like dogs herding sheep,” says Ford. “One will scare the fish from one side and the other will grab them through the net. It’s pretty common and it costs the industry millions of dollars each year.”
Ford has long been motivated by solving challenges around aquaculture. As well as a diver and ROV pilot, he and his wife Jennifer worked for years providing a range of marine industries with ROVs through their company Dive Works Subsea Solutions, developing a reputation for innovation and early adoption along the way.
The Fords bought into ROVs 20 years ago, introduced the technology to the aquaculture industry for net inspections and invented the first in-water net cleaning system, saving the industry significant costs.
After briefly contemplating semi-retirement, they instead invested in SOSub, a business started by a young former employee, Kelsey Treloar. Together, with an eye on net repair and after a significant amount of research and development (R&D) “breaking things and fixing them”, the team built a successful net-repairing prototype, patented the technology in 2022, and began commercial trials.
Today, with support from the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme, SOSub is not only supplying the ROV net repairers (under the product brand name Apama), but also manufacturing most of their component parts and providing training in their use.
A $988,400 Accelerating Commercialisation grant, awarded under the program, has been critical in developing the Apama T500 Netrepairer for the market says David Edwards, an advisor and long-time associate of the Fords who assists SOSub in delivering the commercialisation project.
The grant, which provides funding in instalments as recipients hit particular milestones, along with matched funding has helped every step of the way, Edwards says. This includes employing mechanical engineers and software designers to develop the net-repair and remote-control technology, as well as procuring manufacturing equipment required to make the vehicle components.
Adopting a 4.0 industry approach to manufacturing, which incorporates automation across its operations, sees design software in SOSub’s Victorian manufacturing plant connected to equipment such as 3D resin printers and computer numerical control (CNC) machines. This enables new components to be produced and changed on demand.
A 50,000-litre testing tank has also been installed in the plant, along with a vessel capable of testing operations under pressure down to 1000 metres.
Ford says the beauty of manufacturing all the components of the Apama T500 Netrepairer “where everything is exactly as we want” is that it provides SOSub with complete control of quality and the supply chain.
And if customers need replacement parts, new components can be produced within hours.
“We can reprint them and send them all around the world,” says Ford.
SOSub has also made significant investment in a training package for Apama T500 Netrepairer pilots that includes instruction on the net-repairing technique via HoloLens, an augmented reality headset from Microsoft.
“There’s a little bit of skill involved in repairing the nets in the right place and making the repair so it will last, so SOSub are providing hands-on training for the clients as well,” Edwards says.
Clients, who will lease the Apama T500 Netrepairer from SOSub, already include commercial development partners Huon Aquaculture and Tassal in Tasmania where Ford is based, along with more than 90 per cent of Australia’s salmonid aquaculture industry.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg in the context of potential demand from a global industry where the 350 tonnes harvested each day in Tasmania represents only three per cent of the world market.
Poised to launch in the global market in 2023, producers from Norway, New Zealand, Scotland and Chile will be on the radar once its extensive trials are complete and SOSub is confident its production process can meet demand.
“We want to be prepared because people are going to want the technology,” says Ford. “Now that the product is mature and being used, the next step is to take it to other clients, other regions and elsewhere in the world.”
It’s in this context that guidance from Tran has been valuable, helping to clarify their strategy as they go to market and make connections that will enable further business development and fundraising into the future.
“Taylor understands our business and has helped us ask the right questions about what we’re doing,” Ford says. “He is very easy to get along with, you can ring him any time. He has no other vested interest other than helping us succeed.
The SOSub Apama T500 Netrepairer has the potential to make a handy return for its inventors, but Ford says his idea of success is not motivated by money.
“I just want to see it work,” he says. “And if we see this thing going around the world, and being the first to do something that no one else has ever done, that’s the best part.”