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An Interview with Hugh O'Sullivan, STREAM Project and Waterford Institute of Technology

IATiP talks with Hugh O’Sullivan of WIT about the STREAM project and the work they are doing to develop sensors for providing real-time, environmental data in aquatic environments.

Learn more about the STREAM project via marinestream.eu, via Twitter @irlwal or by emailing info@marinestream.eu.

View or read the interview below [edited for clarity].

Hi Hugh! Can tell us about the STREAM project and your work?

STREAM is a project funded by Interreg Ireland Wales, with three partners, Waterford Institute of Technology as lead partner, Swansea University and Munster Technological University. STREAM stands for “sensor technologies in remote environmental aquatic monitoring”. Stream is developing sensors and it’s storing the data and making it available on an online platform. It’s about increasing the amount of data that we can gain and from the marine environment but also presenting that data in a useful manner.

how will you apply that data? Is it helpful to the Irish aquaculture sector?

it’s attractive to get as much data as you can but it needs to be put into perspective for the Irish aquaculture industry, and we’ve done that through speaking to different stakeholders in aquaculture, like shellfish producers, and asking them about their concerns. To zoom in, for example Waterford estuary – there have been concerns from the Irish aquaculture industry about different environmental impacts on the producers. There’s a lot of pressure put on aquaculture and from the surrounding environment. There are different opinions on what could be having an impact but really it’s not until we start gathering the data that we can build up a picture and really understand that marine environment so that’s where STREAM comes in. It’s there to help the industry and to help coastal communities to understand the marine environment using data.

It’s good to be backed by data so you actually know what’s happening.

You can’t make assumptions on the environment. You need to have the data. But also I think there’s a tendency to expect one pressure to be the cause of an impact and realistically it can be a combination of lots of different things. It’s complicated! Then you add climate change making it almost impossible to decipher. But we stand a better chance the more data we can gather.

So there’s so many moving parts there you can’t isolate one thing, so you need to keep on top of it with data collection.

Absolutely, yes.

What stage is the project at?

We’ve deployed some of the commercial ‘off-the-shelf’ sensors and we’ve been using and monitoring that data, getting experience with that. We’re testing the sensors that have been developed by STREAM in the lab, and we’re trying to validate those. Hopefully soon we’ll be able to deploy those sensors in the actual marine environment which as you can imagine is a big difference because it’s dynamic. You’ve got all sorts of animals and plants that want to grow on these things and affect their reliability. You’ve also got storms and weather, so you’ve got to make sure that the sensors are robust. That’s the stage we’re at now! It’s exciting because we’re positive that we can develop something that can help to solve the problem.

How will these sensors compare to what’s out there already, or how will they change the game?

While it’s important that we’re developing cost-effective sensors that can bring down the cost, or will allow to increase the amount of sensors that can be deployed in the marine environment, I think a big strength of STREAM is our ability to store and analyse the data. We hear terms like big data and machine learning, and really all that means is we’re trying to use these technologies to predict and to simplify the data. So even though they’re complicated ideas, they really should be used to simplify the data and present it to stakeholders in a way that they can understand. That’s the difference of STREAM – we’re providing an entire package from sensors all the way in the marine environment right up to the analysis of the data.

That sort of focus on the end users and the accessibility of data at the end point is interesting – if no one’s able to interpret the data it isn’t useful.

It’s all very well to develop technology and to come up with really cool projects but if it’s not going to get taken on board by communities or used in a meaningful way, then there’s not really much point to it. So stakeholder engagement has always been a focus of STREAM, and understanding the requirements of coastal communities is essential.

Where are you going with this now over the next few months?

We’re rolling out the sensor network a bit and testing the dashboard, and we’re just trying to make sure that there’s no glitches in it so when it’s ready for users to use, we plan to roll out a few extra sites. But we’re mostly focusing on the development and testing of our own sensors because that’s the key value of the project. There are lots of commercial sensors available and they’re easy to get your hands on (albeit a fair bit of expertise involved to operate them) but we want to develop our own sensors and develop the network and the analysis – so that’s really our key areas of focus over the coming months.

It sounds like a really exciting time ahead

it is! We often speak about having an idea at the right time and I think it’s time for this technology. You can’t separate aquaculture from the marine environment – they’re all connected, and with aquaculture being looked to to produce such a large amount of the food that we’re going to need, and the proteins we’re going to need in the future, most forms of aquaculture and certainly what we’ll be looking to in the future is reliant on the environment. So if we don’t understand the environment or if we don’t protect the environment – whether it’s finfish farms or shellfish farms – we won’t have a future in it. The more we pressure and we demand from the marine environment in what’s a relatively sustainable production of food, we need to understand how the environment is going to have an effect, and that’s how we’ll succeed.

So in a way this work is future proofing the industry?

It’s a fantastic industry. Obviously aquaculture has challenges, but we’re in a good place in the Irish industry to tackle these challenges – a highly educated population, with a great industry, so there’s no reason why we won’t succeed.

The energy in the sector is really palpable – so many people are driving for innovation and research and it’s exciting to see.

I think there’s a really positive thing happening in Ireland at the moment in the aquaculture industry and I’m delighted to be part of it.

thank you for your work and for speaking to us Hugh. If anyone wants to find out more about the STREAM project and the work you’re doing where can they go?

You can have a look at our website so www.marinestream.eu, and our twitter handle is @irlwal . You can email us at info@marinstream.eu and we will be happy to talk to you if you’d like more information.

Thank you Hugh!