Claire Corlett

Fish Food, Fish Tanks, and More
Esben Beck – Lasers and AI for healthier salmon

Esben Beck – Lasers and AI for healthier salmon


A fjord in western Norway. A boat is on the way to its fishing grounds – or rather, an aquafarm. Each one of these gigantic enclosures, called pens, contains around 200,000 salmon. Salmon farming not only has a long tradition in Norway but also conforms to the highest quality standards worldwide. In Norway alone, salmon production is valued at around 6 billion euros. But there’s trouble in paradise…. …in the shape of a creature that has been giving fishermen worldwide problems for years. Lepeophtheirus salmonis – better known as the sea louse. The favourite food of this small crustacean? The blood and mucus of fish. It uses its body like a suction cup to cling tightly to its victim. Once this parasite infests a fish population, it propagates exponentially fast. The immune systems of its victims weaken, the fish lose weight rapidly and they often die. The damage caused by this pest adds up to 500 million euros each year – in Norway alone… The problem mainly occurs where large numbers of salmon are inside a relatively small area – even though they
have plenty of room to swim. In a fish farm, salmon density is far higher than in the sea. That gives the
salmon lysa chance to start reproducing They also have a much higher survival rate than in nature The amount of lice per salmon increases really fast, and eventually it becomes too much for the fish to cope with. Esben Beck, from Norway, now wants to tackle this plague in a completely new way. When seen from above, the technology looks a bit like a kind of high-tech submersible pump – but it’s about to put all previous pest control methods firmly in the shade. There are various different methods at the moment, and most require the salmon to be handled. That is, they are starved for a few days before the net is lifted and the salmon are pumped either onto a boat or a barge. And then they undergo different treatments. They can be rinsed, or treated with hot water, or soaked in hydrogen peroxide. But all these methods involve handling, and that is hugely stressful for salmon. In fact it’s the biggest problem with the methods that exist today. Beck’s answer to the sea-louse problem is a very different one. He uses light. Or, more precisely, photons, in the form of a laser beam with a wavelength of 532 nanometres. At this stage, Beck’s company had already focused on underwater technology – but Beck’s idea of using light as a solution for the sea louse problem might have had its origin in his childhood. I’ve worked on all kinds of different technology projects. But the fact is, when I first heard about the salmon lice, it took only a few seconds before I came up with the idea of “shooting” them with a laser. No idea – maybe it’s because I tried to burn ants a couple of times using the sun and a magnifying glass when I was a child. I’m not proud of that – but yes, that could well have been the source of my inspiration. His idea with the laser also works underwater – tests prove it. A single, short laser pulse and the sea louse is dead – in just a fraction of a second. We knew that by using a green laser beam we could transport this energy through water as well. And I’d also worked on projects involving the use of machine vision – for medical diagnostics. Then came smartphones, which suddenly featured face detection and similar technologies. And I realized that machines can see everything – including sea lice. So, if we managed to direct a laser beam at the precise location of a sea louse, it’s clear that it won’t survive. A search into patent databases made it very clear to Beck that nobody had yet come up with the idea. So Beck started developing plans for a unique underwater robot: firstly on the computer and in the lab, and then on paper as well. He also knew he should protect his invention with a patent as quickly as possible. And this is what Beck envisioned: his laser-wielding robot, Stingray. Suspended from cables, it can move around inside the pens to wherever the fish density is greatest. A stereo camera system scans each salmon as it swims by. Image recognition combined with artificial intelligence spots each sea louse on a fish’s body, triggering a laser pulse in an instant. And – the sea louse is history. The fish itself doesn’t notice much because the laser beam bounces off its shiny scales. Stingray will soon be launching applications that record everything else in the pens, by the way: the number of fish, their weight, and even their state of health. Since 2014, Beck’s vision has become a reality – in fact, this Stingray is just one of over 260 underwater robots to have already been used in Norway. From his own control centre, the fish farmer can now keep a precise eye on how his fish are doing. But it’s not only fish farm operators who are benefitting from all this – the fish themselves seem to be doing so too! We’ve already noticed that the salmon make a special point of returning to the laser. Perhaps they regard it as a special treat – a great place for a back massage, maybe! From the fishfarmers point of view, of course, Esben Beck is still breaking new ground with his technology. But three percent of Norway’s fish farm operators are already placing their trust in protection by Stingray. They appreciate the fact that someone is keeping an eye on their valuable fish out there – and is doing so day and night…

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