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In for the laser lice kill

The team at Beck Engineering.  From left Espen Beck, Christopher Cabot, John Arne Breivik, Steinar Laudal and Anders Fjellvang. Photo: Gorm K. Gaare

BFM FEATURE - The “Stingray” innovation can contribute to the sustainable growth of the aquaculture industry.

JUST SHOOT IT!   By the end of this year, the first salmon infested by sea lice and succesfully treated by a newly developed laser technology can be on the dinner table. Beck Engineering's patented laser solution “Stingray” is one of the innovations that can contribute to sustainable growth of the aquaculture industry.

The Stingray laser.

The Stingray laser.

The story of Stingray goes back to Christmas 2009, when there was a great deal of media attention about the resurgence of sea lice in Norwegian fish farms. Entrepreneur Esben Beck read the news stories, and one day he got an idea: Why not just shoot the sea lice with laser?
He started to research patent databases and googled sea lice and laser.
- When I got zero hits on google, I felt a chill down my spine, Beck says today. He immediately went back to work to write patent applications, and worked around the clock. In February 2010, the patent applications were completed. Today, the laser is almost fully developed, and it has potential to be a real game changer in fish farmers fight against sea lice.

 
HUGE CHALLENGES: One of the greatest global challenges of this century is to provide enough food for a growing population with increasing purchasing power. Increased food production from the sea is an important means to solve challenges, but it assumes that production is environmentally sustainable.
A report produced by a working group appointed by The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and Norwegian Academy of Technological Sciences points to the great potential for marine value creation in the decades ahead. For Norway, marine value creation may increase from about NOK 80 billion today to almost 500 billion in 2050, driven by the need for food production and increased demand for seafood.
But it requires large investments in education, research, large-scale infrastructure and logistics chains, and that the industry is able to increase its productivity. It will be a huge challenge.
The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters recently addressed these issues in its annual symposium,  held in its stately villa in Drammensveien in Oslo. In front of a celeb assembly, with His Majesty King Harald and The Minister of Education and Research Kristin Halvorsen, professor Ragnar Tveterås from the University of Stavanger showed how growth in global aquaculture has shown a declining growth trend over the last decades. In the 1980s, world aquaculture production grew by 170 percent, the decade after growth was 130 percent while in the first decade after 2000, the number was down to 76 percent.
Tveterås proceeded to ask whether this is due to the low rate of innovation, and the role of R&D investment and economic organization.

FAST TRACK DEVELOPMENT: This winter Beck Engineering won the regional finals in the battle for DnB's Innovation Award with the Stingray solution. Looking back to Christmas 2009 when Esben Beck first got the idea, the development of Stingray has gone remarkably rapid.

Testing the Stingray laser at Beck Engineering in Oslo.

Testing the Stingray laser at Beck Engineering in Oslo.

Beck Engineering has its origin in Esben Becks basement. In 2000, when he was about to attend engineering at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences,  Beck bought a metal lathe and ended up spending hours working  in the basement. Business grew quickly, and Beck Engineering soon worked with development and innovation for the oil and gas industry, and particular with engineering projects involving remote interventions. Beck never made it back to engineering school.
From its high spec workshop at Stålfjæra in eastern part of Oslo, Beck Engineering has developed a portfolio of projects including subsea and deep water equipment as well as inspection vehicles and inspection tools. This experience and knowledge from complex technology projects proved to be vital when Beck decided to go ahead with the sea lice project.
After the patent application was submitted during winter 2010, Esben Beck and his team began to outline the process from idea to solution. And in autumn 2010, the team asked themselves: What do we do now with the sea lice project?
The answer was to involve the industry.
- We had a meeting with Marine Harvest, Lerøy, SalMar and Innovation Norway in Bergen in January 2011, where we presented the idea. And they got excited by our idea, says general manager John Arne Breivik in Beck Engineering.
The laser solution is alluring to salmon farmers. Use of chemical treatment is expensive, it requires a lot of manual work and has created resistance problems. A laser based system for reducing sea lice infestation is operated automatically, and can provide significant cost savings.
The solution involves two devices submerged in salmon cages. The units contain, among other things, advanced camera technology and laser and the whole system is controlled by software. The salmon moves in predictable patterns in cages, and when cameras capture salmon infested by sea lice, the laser is directed at each individual fish and shoot the sea lice.
With backing from the industry, Esben Beck and his team focused entirely on the Stingray project and put aside or declined new projects. During 2011, they conducted proof of concept, with a budget of NOK 3.5 million which was funded by Lerøy, Marine Harvest, SalMar and FHF (The Fishery and Aquaculture Industry Research Fund) and Beck Engineerings own capital.
- We experienced that the industry had confidence in us, we proved that there was no doubt about our concept of optical sea lice treatment, and we did it on time and on budget, says John Arne Breivik.
Beck Engineering demonstrated that it was possible to discover and track sea lice using cameras which scans fish in the cages, that lice were defused by the laser, and that treated fish were not injured, which was tested and verified by NIVA (The Norwegian Institute for Water Research).
Research and development was conducted in the workshop in Oslo and at the Institute of Marine Research' site at Austevoll near Bergen, where Beck Engineering has rigged up its own laboratory in a 20 feet container.
In late 2011, the groundwork was laid for the second phase of development, when Beck Engineering agreed on and signed a so-called IFU contract (Industrial Research and Development Contract) with Innovation Norway, Marine Harvest, Lerøy Seafood Group and SalMar which lasts to March this year.  IFU contracts seek to develop competitive products in the international market, and to develop industrial networks and environments. Through a committed relationship, firms get access to new expertise, global network of strategic partners and international markets.
The budget for phase two was NOK 22.5 million, and was funded by Lerøy Seafood Group, Marine Harvest and SalMar (NOK 7.5 million), Innovation Norway/Skattefunn (NOK 7.5 million) and the company itself (NOK 7.5 million).
To finance its share Beck Engineeering began discussions with various investors and before summer last year the company  finalized an agreement with venture capital firm TeleVenture and its founder and managing partner Rune Rinnan to invest in Beck Engineering.
- That gave a very good basis for the way forward, says Breivik.
- We have worked around the clock for more than two years, and we have put in an estimated 30.000 hours in this project, he says.

STATE OF THE ART TECHNOLOGY: The sea lice solution contains high-tech solutions in all parts, including proprietary software created by hired game developers. Software will control the entire system, including cameras, lighting and laser beam, and is constructed with artificial intelligence. The system scans fish in the cage, picking out areas that are particularly interesting and directs the laser beam. Images are also checked continuously against a picture library. The software is of vital importance to the system and SINTEF ICT is hired to check the development of this software.  
- The software controls the whole system, and this is important because it will be a fully automated process. The system is super fast and can process 15 million messages within ten seconds. The software is designed so that it always learns. For example, the more pictures we have of sea lice, the better is the system because it knows whether to take aim or not and thus will be more effective.  At the same time, the technology involved is constantly innovated, including the camera technology, which ensures us that the system will only get better and better, says Breivik.
During the winter, a system has been tested in a small cage at the Institute of Marine Research` facilities at Austevoll near Bergen. This  spring new tests will be conducted in a large cage. And this autumn the prototype series will be ready for operation.
- How much lice can you shoot?
- The laser can shoot pre adult lice that are 6-7 mm long, but it will primarily aim to shoot mature females, which are about 10-12 millimeters. If there are more than 100 000 mature females in cages with 200.000 fish it is dangerous and it may spin out of control, so something must be done. The industry has set a target level at around 0.2, which in this case means 40 000 lice. If each laser kills one lice every 30 seconds, it means up to 3 000 lice a day. But the system has capacity to kill several lice per second. This is a permanent installation of continuous optical delousing, which will reduce the level of lice to prevent outbreaks with exponential growth. The more sea lice, the more effective it becomes. It is also possible to imagine optically delousing in combination with wrasse, where one uses wrasse at salmons up to between 800 grams and 1.2 kilograms, and laser on the larger fish, says Breivik.
- This is also mathematics, and the Norwegian Computing Centre and The Norwegian Veterinary Institute are involved, Esben Beck ads.
The partners Lerøy Seafood Group, Marine Harvest and SalMar have first right to order from the prototype series, which will be ready this autumn. Beck Engineering expects that it will produce between 10 and 30 units of this series, and the first to be put into operation during autumn 2013. The units are produced in the workshop at Stålfjæra. Today, there are 10 full-time employees, but before year's end they expect to be around 15.
- How do you think the market will develop?
- We believe it has potential to grow from zero to a few hundred million in three to four years, says Breivik.

THE BLUE REVOLUTION:   Back at The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters symposium, professor Ragnar Tveterås is talking about the blue revolution, and how global aquaculture industry has undergone enormous fluctuations in production, which can be explained by disease and infection, and a form of market failure with respect to R&D. Private actors in the industry are not getting enough return on its R&D investment, which in term leads to underinvestment.
- Long-term growth depends on productivity growth, says Tveterås.
The productivity growth in aquaculture has abated, and it may indicate that total cost of pushing production costs further down is too high. Studies by professor Terje Vassdal at The University of Tromsø show how the cost of producing one kilo of salmon in Norway fell from NOK 71,30 in 1987 to NOK 18,77 in 2005. By 2008, the cost had risen to NOK 21,47. Rising costs related to sea lice is one of the reasons behind this increase.

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