Esben Beck, the engineer behind the louse-slaying strobe, is one of three finalists in the SME category of the European Patent Office (EPO) prize. His invention uses image recognition algorithms to spot sea lice on nearby salmon and automatically targets the parasites, killing them instantly without harming the fish.
Beck has been commercialising his invention through his Oslo-based company since 2014, transforming it from a basement start-up to a cutting-edge technology firm. His robot is already being used by fish farmers in Norway and is now being extended to other fish farming markets outside the country.
“This invention shows how high-tech from an SME can help an established industry that is worth billions,” said EPO President António Campinos. “Beck’s patent application enabled him to raise funding to develop technology which can benefit animal welfare and improve yields in fisheries.”
Beck, a self-taught inventor with experience in marine engineering and remotely controlled deep-sea robots, came up with the idea that lasers could be used to tackle sea lice when he learnt that the parasites were costing Norway's salmon sector €800 million a year. Laboratory tests confirmed his concept and searches in patent databases showed that no one else had come up with a similar technology yet.
He consequently moved to obtain patent protection for the technology, using his patent application and prototypes produced in his basement to raise over €2.5 million of government funds and venture capital from the seafood industry. With these funds, along with own capital and support from employees of more than €1.5 million, Beck founded Stingray Marine Solutions AS in 2012. He put together a team of experts in artificial intelligence, visual recognition and laser technology to research and eventually commercialise his idea.
Beck’s SME has since invested a total of €25 million to develop the Stingray, a submersible device as large as a boxer’s punching bag and capable of killing tens of thousands of sea lice a day while leaving the salmon on which they feed unharmed. The device is equipped with stereo cameras and uses artificial intelligence to examine video footage in real-time. Powerful onboard computers scan all recognisable parts of the fish simultaneously and can pinpoint the shade and shape of any sea lice in just seven milliseconds. The software then models the path of the fish in the water to predict the future location of the targeted sea louse. It then directs movable mirrors to focus the device’s green laser beam onto the individual sea louse, lock it on target and fire short pulses of intense light into the parasite. The green wavelength transmits effectively underwater. The laser burst is deadly for the opaque, brown-coloured parasites, but it bounces off the shiny scales of the salmon.
The device is fully automated and can operate 24/7 without the need for human intervention or handling of the fish. The ingenuity of the invention required determination and hard work to turn into a viable product. “A lot of people told us that it would be impossible and that is such a great motivational factor for any inventor,” said Beck.
Stingray now employs around 50 permanent staff in their Oslo factory and Beck’s technology has been adopted in more than 150 salmon farming pens in Norway, bringing in sales of Stingray devices worth nearly €10 million in 2018. No other company has a similar product on the market at present, so this unique approach to fighting sea lice offers a new solution to farmers across Norway in tackling a significant problem.
Protected by Beck’s original patent, the Norwegian SME aims to expand its market share across the salmon farming world.
The winners of the 2019 edition of the EPO's annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony in Vienna on 20 June.