When Michelle Kornberg was about to graduate from MIT, she wanted to use her knowledge of mechanical and ocean engineering to make the world a better place. Fortunately, she found the perfect wrap-up class project for seniors: supporting sustainable seafood by helping aquaculturists grow oysters.
âIt’s our responsibility to use our skills and opportunities to work on issues that really matter,â says Kornberg, who now works for an aquaculture company called Innovasea. âFood sustainability is extremely important from an environmental point of view, of course, but it also matters socially. The most vulnerable will be the most affected by the climate crisis, and I think food sustainability and availability are really important on that front. “
The project undertaken by Kornberg’s Synthesis Class, 2.017 (Design of Electromechanical Robotic Systems), is the result of conversations between Michael Triantafyllou, Professor Henry L. and Grace Doherty of MIT in Ocean Science and Engineering and Director of MIT Sea Grant, and Dan Ward. Ward, a seasoned oyster farmer and marine biologist, owns Ward Aquafarms on Cape Cod and has worked extensively to advance the aquaculture industry by seeking solutions to some of its greatest challenges.
Speaking to Triantafyllou at the MIT Sea Grant – part of a network of university programs set up by the federal government to protect the coastal environment and economy – Ward explained that each of his thousands of oyster bags floating net should be turned around 11 times a year. Turning allows algae, barnacles and other “biofouling” organisms that grow on the part of the sac below the water’s surface to be exposed to air and light, so that ‘they can dry out and flake off. If this task is not carried out, the flow of water to the oysters, necessary for their growth, is blocked.
The bags are turned by a farm worker in a kayak, and the task is monotonous, often done in rough water and bad weather, and harmful to ergonomics. “It’s kinda awful, overall,” says Ward, adding that he pays around $ 3,500 a year to return bags to each of his two farm sites – and struggles to find workers who want to. do the work of turning bags that can reach a weight of 60 or 70 pounds just before harvesting the oysters.
Presented with this problem, the Kornberg synthesis class was – made up of six students in mechanical engineering, ocean engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science – brainstormed solutions. Most of the solutions, Kornberg says, involved an autonomous robot that would take care of turning the bags. It was during this class that the original version of the âOystamaranâ was born, a catamaran equipped with a turning mechanism between its two hulls.
Ward’s involvement in the project was important for its development. He says he has looked at many projects as part of his work on advisory committees that come up with new technologies for aquaculture. Often they do not correspond to the real challenges facing the industry.
âIt was always’ I already have this remote control vehicle; Would it be useful to you, as an oyster farmer, if I used some kind of sensor? Ward said. âThey’re trying to bring robotics into aquaculture without any collaboration with industry, which leads to a robotic product that doesn’t solve any of the problems we face on the farm. Having the opportunity to work with MIT Sea Grant to really start from scratch has been thrilling. Their approach was, “What’s the problem and what’s the best way to solve it?” We have a real need for robotics in aquaculture, but you have to do it from the customer’s perspective first, not the technology first. “
Triantafyllou says that while the task performed by the robot is similar to the work performed by robots in other industries, the âparticular difficultyâ faced by students when designing the Oystamaran was its working environment.
“You have a floating machine, which must be self-propelled, and which must find these objects in an environment which is not treated”, explains Triantafyllou. âIt’s a combination of seeing and sailing in a changing environment, with currents, wind and waves. Very quickly, it becomes a complicated task.
Kornberg, who had built the original central rollover mechanism and the ship’s base structure as a staff member of the MIT Sea Grant after graduating in May 2020, worked as a laboratory instructor for the next class of summary related to the project in spring 2021. Andrew Bennett, Education Administrator at MIT Sea Grant, co-taught this course, in which students designed a version 2.0 of Oystamaran, which was tested at Ward Aquafarms and has managed to flip several rows of bags while being controlled remotely. The next steps will be to make the ship more self-sufficient, so that it can be launched, autonomously navigate to the oyster bags, turn them over and return to the launch point. A third synthesis course linked to the project will take place this spring.
Bennett says an ideal project outcome would be, âWe’ve proven the concept, and now someone in the industry says, ‘You know, there’s money to be made with oysters. I think I’ll take over. And then we give it to them.
Meanwhile, he says an unexpected challenge arose in getting the Oystamaran between rows of tightly packed oyster bags at the center of a network.
“How does a robot move between things without destroying something?” He has to move somehow, which is a fascinating control issue, âsays Bennett, adding that the issue is a source of excitement for him rather than frustration. âI love new challenges and I really love when I find a problem that nobody expected. These are the fun ones.
Triantafyllou calls the Oystamaran âan industry firstâ, explaining that the project has demonstrated that robots can perform extremely useful tasks in the ocean and will serve as a model for future innovations in aquaculture.
âJust showing the way, maybe this is the first of a number of robots,â he says. âIt will attract talent to ocean agriculture, which is a big challenge, and also a benefit for society to have a reliable way to produce food from the ocean. “