The robot fish making seafood more sustainable

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The robot fish making seafood more sustainable

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Aquaai’s mechanized surveillance swimmers are helping fish farms be more efficient and clean.

Liane Thompson and her husband and business partner Simeon Pieterkosky were well ahead of the blue economy curve when they founded Aquaai in 2014. Simeon’s work was in robotics and climate change, but it was his daughter who had the vision for their company’s priority.

“I met Simeon while I was working as a journalist in the Middle East, and he had made a promise to his child to save the seas,” Thompson explains. “After his daughter learned of the ocean crisis at school, she came home and said, ‘Dad, enough with the land-based robots, can you please make a robot to save the seas and help the planet?’”  

Thompson, who is CEO at Aquaai, believes that turning their attention to the oceans and a commitment to sustainability and affordability has shaped what they do.

“Our long-term vision is to help keep humanity alive through sustainable and environmentally-friendly practices by combining risk management with biomimicry,” she says.

Aquaai makes biomimetic robotic fish, autonomous underwater vehicles that are selective laser sintering (SLS) 3-D printed and can be deployed by a single person to monitor aquaculture fisheries and other underwater industries. The device’s small size and the way it “swims” allows it to get close to the different sources it is monitoring to gather data, images and footage. These are then delivered to a web dashboard for their clients.

“When we’re working with sustainable aquaculture farms like Kvarøy in Norway that supplies salmon to Whole Foods, [New York’s] Fulton Street Market and Michelin chefs, we are monitoring for temperature, dissolved oxygen, water quality and pH, and we’re providing this data at different depths,” Thompson says. “Being able to monitor all of this while continuously swimming alongside stock allows farmers to increase yield, have fewer diseases and deaths and ensure a healthy ocean environment.”

“Being able to monitor all of this while continuously swimming alongside stock allows farmers to increase yield, have fewer diseases and deaths and ensure a healthy ocean environment.”

Currently, more than half of the world’s seafood comes from aquaculture, and that amount is rapidly increasing. 

Thompson says that in addition to monitoring fisheries, Aquaai’s robotic monitoring platform can also be used to locate subsurface ocean plastic for removal before it breaks down, find sources of polluting agricultural runoff and check waterways after flooding and storms. Because the company’s data-gathering robotic fish are autonomous and in the water 24/7, the cost is much less expensive than manned systems. 

“We’re mimicking nature. We save energy because our robotic fish use fin propulsion. This means they can glide with the water so we save on power and we’re able to maneuver in small spaces such as in fish cages, canals or ports,” she said. 

Thompson said the Aquaai team is focused on creating a circular solution beyond just ocean monitoring and that teaching robotics and educating people is an important part of what they do.

“We call it the three E’s: environmental monitoring, economy boosting and education,” she says. “All of that together is what drives us. That’s what gets us up every day.” 

Aquaai received an EU seal of excellence for the company’s technology for impact and quality, has won a top aquaculture innovation prize and was a semifinalist in the Hardware Cup in Clean Tech. Despite all of this, Thompson says raising funds to expand has been a challenge. She says the U.S. lags behind the rest of the world in accepting there’s a climate crisis and that impact funds have struggled to understand and embrace the blue economy.

“The U.S. needs to do some serious self-reflection about whether it wants to be a world leader on climate and marine technologies,” Thompson says. “I’m hoping that now that more eyes are on the climate and climate tech space, investors will be more willing to look at technologies like ours that are innovative and provide true solutions. You can’t talk about climate and the oceans separately.”


“The U.S. needs to do some serious self-reflection about whether it wants to be a world leader on climate and marine technologies.”

To date, the Aquaai team has not done a priced round of funding to put a value on the company but Thompson says their goal is to have thousands of their eco-friendly platforms in the waterways harnessing data worldwide for the biggest impact possible. 

“I would love to have Aquaai subsidiaries in many countries since so many communities need to protect their waterways,” she says. 

Whether it’s climate change or the blue economy, Thompson says access to data is essential and it will be more important as the world ramps up efforts to protect them both. 

“We have to make future decisions based on information,” she says. “Our system is designed for the 21st century of climate issues to reduce the expense that goes into collecting and tracking visual and environmental data from waterways. Aquaai offers an affordable risk management tool for players in the blue economy, such as reinsurance, aquaculture, cities, ports, rivers, dams, first responders in flood disasters, ocean and climate research, conservation and illegal fishing monitors.” 

Thompson advises those interested in investing in the blue economy to do their homework and read up on where the biggest problems are and who is providing innovative solutions. 

“I would say to investors to stop supporting organizations that are just talk and start putting your capital into actual startups who are building solutions, as moonshot as they may seem,” she says. “We don’t need another organization to talk about the blue economy or climate change.

We need investors to start writing checks to the actual innovators.”

 

 

Written by

Blair Palese

Blair Palese is a writer and project manager on a range of climate change projects. In 2009, she cofounded 350.org Australia and was its CEO for 10 years. Previously, she was a communications director for Greenpeace International and Greenpeace USA, head of international public relations for the Body Shop, editor-in-chief of Greenpages magazine, and worked at Washington Monthly and ABC.