BioSort, Cermaq moving forward with groundbreaking iFarm project
Geir Stang Hauge, the general manager of Fornebu, Norway-based BioSort, explains his company’s potentially revolutionary salmon-farming iFarm project by comparing it to the self-driving technology developed by Tesla. But the technology he has helped to develop actually has much more humble origins: vending machines.
Hauge, who earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Washington, spent most of his career before BioSort at Tomra, which is the dominant player in the development of sensor-based sorting for foods. The company pioneered the use of cameras, x-rays, and infrared for analyzing different food products and sizes to be able to sort them to an array of different specifications. It also implemented the use of robotic control for many of those operations, speeding up the sorting process.
In 2010, two of Hauge’s colleagues left Tomra to start BioSort, which initially focused on capturing escaped salmon in rivers.
“They worked on this for a few years but it was never a commercially successful [venture]. Then they started looking at how they could apply this technology to the salmon-farming process,” Hauge told SeafoodSource. “I was always watching what they were doing but I didn’t quite believe in the market potential for the river project. But when they switched to aquaculture, I got interested and we decided to do that together.”
The iFarm idea emerged in 2015, and Hauge joined BioSort in January 2016.
“The concept is based on the fact that, if you want to do sorting of items, you have to bring it down to the individual level. And to do that with salmon, we came up with the idea of putting a roof on the pen and having fish go through a narrow opening to the surface. That way, we can capture images of all the individual salmon and gather data based off those pictures,” Hauge said.
BioSort had worked out the core concept of iFarm by the winter of 2016, and then the co-founders began to pitch the idea to the big salmon-farming companies in Norway.
“There were several companies who wanted to do this with us, but we just got a very good dialogue with Cermaq,” Hauge said. “They were very engaged and excited about iFarm, and they also saw this would fit very well with their overall focus on sustainability. If you look at different salmon farmers, will see Cermaq is one of the most dedicated to advancing sustainability efforts.”
The timing of the iFarm concept also fit well with application period for an aquaculture development license, a special program begun by Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries to achieve what it considers an important goal: innovation to support future growth for the Norwegian fish-farming sector. The program offers salmon farmers five- to 15-year licenses to develop cutting-edge processes for growing salmon more sustainably and efficiently, and allows them to convert them to permanent licenses at a steep discount if they’re successful.
“Norway wants to expand salmon farming a lot, but at this stage, the government doesn’t want to expand too much before we have a better handle on sea lice, diseases, escapes, and [determining] where the additional cages should be placed,” Hauge said. “Sea lice is the biggest challenge for many salmon farmers right now, and it’s probably top-of-mind for most of them. There are a lot of approaches out there right now for how to handle sea lice – there are probably 200 companies working on solutions right now – but there’s nothing like what iFarm is trying to do. Another element of iFarm relates to reducing mortality based on disease treatment and minimizing the handling of fish. And Cermaq also sees great potential in size-sorting for harvest. At the time of harvest, size separation of fish is large – it’s common that fish range in size between three and seven kilos in order to get a 4.5-kilo average. But if you can sort out all the fish over five kilos, you can bring that to harvest and let the rest of the fish grow further. That means better yields and more efficient use of resources, and you can get higher value for larger fish.”
BioSort signed a partnership with Cermaq and farming equipment manufacturer ScaleAQ, and in December 2019, Cermaq was awarded four development licenses for the iFarm project, which gave the company permits to operate the trial and to grow an additional 3,120 metric tons of salmon within the iFarm test program to offset the costs of the project. Cermaq gave the iFarm project a five-year timeline to prove its “individualized approach” to salmon farming can actually work.
The project, currently based at Cermaq’s Martnesvika site in Steigen, Nordland County, in northern Norway – though two other sites will eventually be used in the project – hit a major milestone in September 2020 when Cermaq stocked the project’s first specially designed net-pen, produced by ScaleAQ. In late February, it notched another landmark with the installation of the BioSort technology for initial trials.
BioSort has gone all-in on the project, tripling in size from four to 12 employees in 2020, hiring several consultants, and filing four patents covering the principles of iFarm. Hauge said the company will be solely focused on iFarm for the next five to six years. If successful, Cermaq will get to convert its temporary farming licenses to permanent ones, and BioSort gets to keep the intellectual property and sell it on the open market.
Hauge said he is optimistic about the chances for success, but acknowledged the unprecedented nature of the goal the development team is trying to achieve. BioSort’s image recognition technology is dependent on being able to identify individual salmon while they are swimming – no easy feat. Hauge said BioSort is using a similar approach as Tesla used for its self-driving technology.
“Tesla uses eight cameras around the car to ‘see’ the surroundings and take action. We are using similar technology around each of the openings the fish swims through,” he said. “In regard to the sensor alone, it is no question that it will be challenging. We are still in the early phases of developing it and it won’t take less than five years to get it right.”
Particularly difficult will be the process of perfecting the tunnel the salmon must swim through to put them in position, and the special illumination systems BioSort must design to optimize the contrast of the features of the fish so they can be accurately identified. And while the company is leaning on technology similar to that of human facial recognition technology for its fish-identification system, it still must be perfected for use on salmon.
“The key feature on the salmon that is unique for each fish is the dot pattern on the head of the fish,” Hauge said. "When the smolt is stocked, there are typically not so many dots on the head of the fish, but more dots come as the fish grows. However, we know that these dots remain stable – with some growth – for the lifetime of the fish. The dot pattern, relative to the eye, mouth, and gill cover, becomes the ‘fingerprint’ of the fish. At this point, we are only in the beginning of this development.”
BioSort expects to build improved prototypes each year of the project. Eventually, there will be nine models being tested at once – one for each of the nine net-pens allowed under the development permits.
“We’re doing things no one has done before,” Hauge said. “We have to learn from each iteration of the prototypes. No one get it right the first time.”
Hauge said besides ensuring the hardware works in the harsh saltwater environment of the Norwegian fjords, the company’s software will also need time to “learn” through data collection and analysis.
“The dataset needed to build the algorithms that identify each individual is large,” Hauge said. “We will need several years to collect enough data to get the fish identification system right.”
Only after the spot-recognition software is working accurately can BioSort then begin advanced work on studying how individual fish behave in the iFarm aquaculture system, which has never been used before. In the meantime, the company is monitoring how the fish currently in the water are reacting to their new environment and getting a baseline for their growth rates, movements, lice count, and mortality rates inside the cages.
“All those things are going very well. Mortality has been very low and the growth rate is currently normal,” Hauge said. “We are also working on the design for the sorting mechanism – we’re not ready with that quite yet, but we’re working on very promising concepts.”
Hauge credited ScaleAQ with for much of the project’s early success, as well as the 20-person team at Cermaq working in various capacities on the iFarm project. The three companies have had “very close cooperation,” which Hauge said will be necessary to continue for the duration of the project to give it a chance to succeed.
For Cermaq, that dedication begins with the massive price tag for the project – Cermaq has plans to invest a total of NOK 580 million (USD 64.7 million, EUR 58.3 million) in the iFarm concept. While the company’s goal is clearly to convert its development licenses, the mere ability to closely monitor the salmon population in each net-pen would be extremely valuable to Cermaq, Hauge said.
“For example, they can look at the growth rates of individual fish and figure out optimal feeding schemes,” he said. “You can see responses to changes in environment, diet, and any other factors affecting the fish much more directly, and if things aren’t working, you can identify and correct those issues faster.”
Cermaq and ScaleAQ have thus far both been ideal partners, according to Hauge, as has the Norwegian Institute of Food, Fisheries, and Aquaculture Research (Nofima), which has been conducting its own research on fish behavior and welfare through iFarm’s data-collection capabilities.
“For us, it’s a huge advantage to have this very close relationship to a potential future customer, but I think we all really see potential in what this is – a project that could bring major benefits to all of us and to the industry,” Hauge said. “But it only works if all the involved are dedicated, and we’re fortunate to be in a partnership where such dedication exists.”
Photo courtesy of BioSort