Good vibrations will power IoT for a California offshore mussel ranch

The Internet of Things already includes cows and pigs, but it’s about to branch out into another form of agriculture: an underwater ranch.

Catalina Sea Ranch (CSR), which plans to raise Mediterranean mussels six miles off Huntington Beach in Southern California, won’t make cowboys ride out into the Pacific to herd the tasty crustaceans or look for shellfish rustlers. The startup will keep a virtual eye on its soggy 100-acre spread with automated monitoring systems connected to the cloud through the Verizon Wireless LTE network.

Mussel ranching is nothing new, and by itself it’s pretty low-tech. Mussels naturally attach themselves to objects in the ocean and feed themselves by filtering out microscopic plants called phytoplankton that are suspended the water. On a ranch, they live on ropes suspended in the water, where they take about eight months to grow to full size and turn the ropes into a thick mass of shells. Then a crew comes out in a boat and harvests them by pulling the ropes out of the water and bending them so that the mussels get knocked off. But setting up the ranch involves more than staking a claim.

“Nothing like this has been done offshore of California before in these water depths, in this type of environment,” said Cassidy Teufel, a senior environmental scientist at the California Coastal Commission, one of four agencies that has some say over the area. The commission is concerned about how the ranch might affect the surrounding area. Among other things, it wants to know about water quality, effects on local fishing and the possibility that whales and other marine mammals might get caught in the ropes. What’s needed is information and analysis.

“It’s not that anybody has any negative data. There is no data,” said Phil Cruver, CSR’s CEO. That’s where the ranch’s plan for remote wireless monitoring comes in. Once the commission has approved that plan, CSR is free to start ranching.

If it gets the green light, Cruver’s ranch could eventually make a dent in the U.S. trade deficit. It would produce mussels that are shipped and sold live, which in the U.S. come primarily from Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada. The country imports 33 million pounds of live mussels from that province, and in the West they have to be shipped by air. They’re part of the 91 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. that’s imported. CSR hopes to expand within a few years to 600 acres, at which point it will be able to produce about 17,000 pounds of mussels per year.

But before it gets to that point, CSR will have to provide data to independent researchers so they can analyze the impact of the initial 100-acre ranch. The Coastal Commission wants annual reports, and CSR says its system will do better than that.

“It’s not going to be one year later, we’re going to do it in real time,” Cruver said. “If there’s a problem, we can change it in a week, not a year.”

To monitor the whole operation and what it’s doing to other sea life and the ocean, CSR will set up a buoy in the middle of the ranch. That unmanned, truck-sized platform, formerly used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will have numerous sensors, a radar, and a video camera, and a router. All the data from that craft and other tools will travel over Verizon’s network to the carrier’s Terremark cloud service, where research teams can access it for both individual and collaborative research.

The radar and camera on the buoy will be CSR’s security patrol. If any ship or boat comes within a mile of the ranch, the radar will detect it and activate the camera, which can swivel around to point toward the incoming craft and send real-time video. That system is designed to prevent sabotage or theft.

“If it sees something like that, it automatically turns on the camera and sends the video to the Verizon network. I or somebody else could be watching it,” and alert the U.S. Coast Guard if it appears to be a threat, Cruver said.

The sensors will measure water temperature, acidity, the amount of phytoplankton, and other conditions, as well as detecting large neighbors, such as local sharks that have been fitted with transmitter tags. The sensors will collect data constantly and upload it through the router to the LTE network every 15 minutes. Tensionometers on each of the 40 long, taut ropes that make up the ranch will be able to send alerts to the buoy, and on to the cloud, if something runs into a rope. That might help detect trapped marine mammals, Cruver said.

Some monitoring will be carried out by robots. Crew members on CSR’s research vessel, the Captain Jack, will drop tethered ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) with video cameras into the water and guide them around the ranch to inspect the lines. That video will also go over LTE to the cloud.

It was Cruver’s idea to network the ranch with LTE instead of the expensive satellite networks that are typically used for such facilities.

“I’m out there all the time in my boat ... and I’m getting two to three bars” on a Verizon phone, he said.

Off the coast of Huntington Beach, which is such a popular beach town it’s called “Surf City USA,” his only concerns about service involved volleyball and wipeouts.

“Let’s just say they have a big surf event, and everyone’s uploading social-network videos and so forth. That may prevent us from transmitting real-time video,” Cruver said.

Verizon says it’s got CSR covered without having to install any fancy offshore cells. “There is capacity and coverage to make it work now,” spokesman Ken Muche said.

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