The counter uses artificial intelligence that MSD believes will provide crisp images of the salmon lice and send valuable information to farmers.
Fish Farming Expert’s sister site, Kyst.no, talked to Chris Beattie from MSD Animal Health Ventures during this week’s North Atlantic Seafoods conference in Bergen, together with Dafydd Morris, general manager of MSD Animal Health Aqua in Norway and MSD Animal Health Ventures assistant director Kim Levik.
MSD Animal Health is part of the American global pharmaceutical company MSD and has its own innovation department working with solutions other than pharma. MSD Animal Health has recently acquired Scan Aqua and is constantly investing in solutions aimed at the aquaculture industry.
The three men said work on the sea lice counter has been going on for several years, and that after a lot of hard work on technology and system development, as well as a lot of testing and error at fish farms, the sea lice counter is scheduled to be launched commercially next year.
Beattie said MSD’s main focus has always been to test and develop the sea lice counter in Norway as it is a leader in aquaculture and will be the initial focus of sales efforts.
In Norway, MSD has a team of four working on this project, but Beattie points out that the company has also hired in personnel from all over the world who work with technology, algorithms and the like. This includes expertise from companies that work with advanced camera technology in the oil and subsea industry.
“We have invested a lot of time and money in ensuring that the counter is robust enough to withstand the various weather conditions that exist on the cage edge and that it is ready for the job it will do when it is deployed. Among other things, we have got an offshore company to test that it is robust and can withstand severe weather, while we have hired expertise from the US on system development,” said Beattie, precision aquaculture lead in the Animal Health Ventures section.
Trial and error
Early in the testing phase, the sea lice counter was shaped like a wheel with various cameras attached. There has been a lot of trial and error during development, but MSD Animal Health now believes that it is approaching the finished product. One of the main challenges has been to make a counter that captures images with the correct lighting strength, at the right angle, and which is very accurate, even in challenging weather and light conditions.
The testing has led MSD to be very sure of what resolution the camera must have, and the angle that best captures the images correctly. The company says that it has been quite significant for the system to be able to capture images of the sea lice and record them in a system that the farmer can extract from a secure website with unique access for each user.
Beattie, Levik and Morris believe what makes the sea lice counter unique is its accuracy.
“We have been very aware from the start that the focus should be on developing a sea lice counter that does exactly what the name implies,” said Beattie.
“It should count sea lice. We will focus on this and make the machine the best possible so that the product we develop will be the best in class.
“We have deliberately chosen not to mix in other things at this point, such as biomass measurement, individual recognition and oxygen measurement. This is because the product must not have to compromise on the sea lice counting qualities. We will not launch until the product is where we want it in terms of quality and documentation for sea lice counting.”
Far better than manual counting
Levik pointed out that MSD Animal Health will deliver a product that has full focus on counting lice as well as possible and capturing images of as many sea lice as possible for all lice stages.
“We are very sure that it is far better than manual counting of lice and we have good documentation of this,” emphasised Beattie. “You can count a much higher proportion of fish during the week, and the computer system ensures that it is very accurate.”
You have several competitors trying to make sea lice counters at the same time as you. What makes your product unique?
“The primary reason that we started with this was because we see a great need from farmers, in relation to how lice counting is done today,” said Beattie. “Our counter is one of the components of a global fight against sea lice. It’s not the only solution, but it’s part of the solution.”
He also said that MSD Animal Health has very good expertise on both technology and biology, and that it is therefore natural for it to enter such a venture.
Very advanced system
He added that a lice counter can help farmers get a better overview and that it is a step in the right direction with regard to fish health and less handling of the fish. As a fish health company, MSD has a very high requirement for documentation and for the product to work. He therefore believes that its sea lice counter will work better than those of competitors.
“It is simply in our DNA, we want the fish to have it as good as possible, and that the technology works in the best possible way, and that the producers get the correct data at the right time,” he said.
“What we have created is a very advanced system and is at the very edge of what a computer can do. We must be able to detect a small brown spot, under water, where everything changes and moves. Fortunately, we have talented people who have ensured that this works in the best possible way.”