Using Sonar to Help Farmers Solve the Biomass Problem


Minnowtech uses sonar to measure shrimp biomass

Sonar has enormous potential for the shrimp industry – providing farmers with a non-invasive way to assess their stocks, perform image analysis and monitor their progress. Although the technology has been around for decades, its use in the industry has been relatively limited. But a new cohort of innovators are using sonar to develop precision technologies for shrimp aquaculture.

The fish website recently caught up with Suzan Shahrestani, CEO of a Maryland-based startup minnowtech to discuss how the BRS-1, their sonar biomass detector, can help shrimp farmers monitor their production data and maximize their yields.

Can you tell me a bit about your background and the beginnings of Minnowtech?

I have a degree in fisheries science from University of Maryland Environmental Science Center (UMCES) and I wanted to know more about food sustainability. Eight years ago, I did a master’s degree at Hashemite University which focused on olive farms in Jordan – I learned how difficult it was for farmers to grow food when faced with significant gaps in their data. I knew there was a scientific solution to the problem, but nothing seemed to improve. It was as if no one approached agricultural problems with an innovative mindset.

head shot
Shahrestani’s uses technology to fill data gaps in aquaculture production

When I returned to the United States after my time in the Middle East, I was determined to find a way to use technology to fill these data gaps. My central question became, “How can we use science to grow better food?” “. Although I was passionate about the idea, I didn’t really have a species model – I just wanted to know what tools I needed to use to fill in the data gaps.

When I started my doctorate at University of Maryland, I was using sonar instruments developed by the US Navy to look beneath the surface of murky water in the Chesapeake Bay. Because people are basically blindfolded when it comes to what’s in murky water, we were seeing things in this ecosystem for the first time. We were using these high resolution sonar cameras and seeing things like jellyfish. We had generated so much data where before there was none.

During my fourth year of my PhD, I met my co-founding partner Ken Malone during my entrepreneurship internship. When I told him about using sonar cameras, he asked if I had thought of using these sensors to count farmed fish and shrimp instead of jellyfish. Ken truly understands the challenges shrimp farmers face when trying to count the biomass in their ponds – and I had the solution! We founded Minnowtech practically overnight and three months later we were off to the Hatch Accelerator Program.

group shooting
Minnowtech field-tested its sonar technology in Hawaii

Why is biomass estimation such a challenge in shrimp aquaculture?

Estimation of shrimp biomass has not improved significantly since the inception of the industry. Usually, farmers throw a net into the water to take a sample of shrimp from the pond, and then they use this inaccurate sample to estimate the total number of shrimp in their ponds. But with sonar, you can see animals in their individual location in the water column. It gives you a picture through time of what is really going on in the water.

How does Minnowtech use sonar?

The sonar tool I had previously used during my PhD was over-engineered for aquaculture. We decided to scale down this device and design something that was specific to shrimp production, was durable in farm conditions, and was cost effective. This is how we found our concept for the BRS-1. Our manufacturing partnership with OTAQ also contributed to this. OTAQ was already developing sonar technology for aquaculture, so now that we have partnered up, we can produce our devices at cost for what we want to achieve.

aquaculture technician deploying sonar in water
Minnowtech designed sonar tools suitable for shrimp production

It’s the secret sauce of what we do. We use sonar as a tool and then pair it with math and statistics that can track the shrimp population. We draw on different scientific disciplines to explain what we see with the device and then predict what will happen next during the agricultural cycle.

It was important for us to keep in mind the price of a producer – at the end of the day you could have a fancy machine that counts shrimp, but if a farmer can’t afford it, he won’t adopt technology. . Our next step is to engage in customer discovery to learn more about the challenges on the farm, and then develop the technology in parallel.

What are the capabilities of the BRS-1 and why is it unique?

The BRS-1 counts individual shrimp and can extrapolate this information to biomass with 95% accuracy. The device can be deployed in any size pond and generate reliable biomass counts accessible through an online portal. Since biomass is probably the biggest data blind spot on farms, if we can provide this figure, farmers’ daily operations can be more efficient and strategic. Estimating biomass with 95% accuracy means that when shrimp farmers wake up in the morning, they can see if their shrimp population has remained stable since the previous night. In addition to tracking survival, it also allows growers to adjust their feeding schedules and predict harvest dates, resulting in huge savings on farm inputs.

biomass sensor
The BRS-1 counts individual shrimp and can extrapolate this information to biomass with 95% accuracy

As we collect more data from the farms, we can go back and perform additional analysis on the visuals and the high-quality dataset. In the future, this will allow us to design more features and analyze shrimp behaviors like foraging and satiety.

The hardware itself isn’t unique – sonar has been around for decades. Minnowtech’s understanding of marine science, shrimp ecology, behavior and how we process data is what sets us apart. BRS-1 is not computationally demanding and does not require much labor on the farm. We’ve developed the device so anyone can use it – once it’s installed, farmers are good to go. It’s the fusion of simple, elegant technology that delivers accurate and meaningful data to farmers and managers.

How can shrimp farmers learn more about Minnowtech and the BRS-1?

We organize a #FakeLiveStream on April 21 at 9 p.m. ET where we will introduce the device, how it is deployed and what it can do. We interviewed farmers who use the device and received feedback from our manufacturing partner OTAQ explaining how the device works. We want to show the potential of Minnowtech and what the BRS-1 can do – and answer all questions from potential users. We want to talk to as many farmers as possible and see if we can get them on board as trial partners.

aquaculture technician standing in the middle of a shrimp pond
Minnowtech has ensured that the BRS-1 is user friendly – once installed, farmers are ready to go

Our trial partner program will provide BRS-1 devices at a 40% discount with six months of free biomass readings included. Once selected, each trial partner will be required to purchase a minimum of five devices. During the trial, Minnowtech technicians will deploy the devices, begin taking biomass readings, and post all results to an online dashboard. The information gained will be essential for predicting harvest dates, tracking survival rates and dramatically improving feeding efficiency.

How do you see things evolving for Minnowtech?

We made our first tests with Kauai Shrimp and their team. They produce shrimp in round ponds with polyurethane liners and get their water from a saltwater aquifer. They really helped us refine our approach and we are looking to expand to other shrimp production hubs like Vietnam and Indonesia. We are looking for new trial partners and are excited to see where we can go next.

As we grow, it’s a game of scale. We want to be strategic about how we deploy to different countries. We pay close attention to each shrimp farming region around the world and follow the needs of each farmer. Shrimp farms are different from place to place – so their needs and pain points vary. We listen to farmers as we enter new regions to see how we can have the best impact.

We are also closely monitoring the BRS-1. We put hardware and electronics in the water – it will always be a challenge and it is a mistake to underestimate this!

Learn more about Minnowtech here.

Megan Howel

Associate Editor at The Fish Site

Megan Howell started writing about aquaculture in 2019 as part of the editorial team at 5m Publishing and The fish website. She holds an MA in Applied Research Methods from Trinity College Dublin. She currently lives and works in Ireland.

Rob Flecher

Editor-in-Chief at The Fish Site

Rob Fletcher has been writing about aquaculture since 2007, as editor of fish farmer, Fish farming specialist and The fish website. He holds an MA in History from the University of Edinburgh and an MA in Sustainable Aquaculture from the University of St Andrews. He currently lives and works in Scotland.

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