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Marine Science


SBIR contracts awarded to develop new ways of assessing seaweed

To address the challenge towards achieving a national baseline of intertidal seaweed resource distribution in Ireland, the Marine Institute and Enterprise Ireland have awarded Phase 1 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts to three Irish consortia, collectively involving four SMEs, two research groups and two industry partners. Phase 1 contracts will run over four months and expertise in satellite earth observation, drone and light aircraft operations, and multi frequency imagery analytics (multispectral and hyperspectral) will be deployed to assess and improve our understanding of Ireland’s coastal marine habitat and ecosystems. Successful Phase 1 projects may proceed to scaled up demonstration activities and regional resource mapping during 2021.

This SBIR challenge is led by the Marine Institute in collaboration with Enterprise Ireland and enables public bodies to fund research and drive innovation to address specific requirements not currently deliverable through the marketplace, via robust engagement with technology rich companies and organisations.

This challenge aims to produce accurate estimates of seaweed resource distribution and biomass through development and application of the latest technological innovations. Conventional ground surveys to estimate seaweed biomass are time-consuming, expensive and sometimes dangerous due to inaccessible terrain. Recently however the application of satellite and/or drone technologies with the use of hyperspectral and/or multispectral cameras has emerged as a potential method to accurately quantify species specific seaweed biomass when supported by adequate groundtruthing.

There is increasing demand, both nationally and internationally, for seaweed and seaweed-based products. Seaweed is now widely used within fertilizers, animal feed additives, hydrocolloids, human food, cosmetics and medicines, and seaweed derived products are becoming increasingly popular in pharmacies, restaurants, and health stores. It is estimated that 32 countries actively harvest over 800,000 tonnes from wild stocks and natural beds annually. In Ireland, commercial interest in the sector is growing, and a balanced approach needs to evolve to support sustainable growth, enabling the local harvesters to continue to extract seaweed in a traditional manner, while providing an adequate quality resource to meet the needs of the larger scale companies and the potential international market.

Mick Gillooly, Director of Oceans, Climate and Information Services at the Marine Institute said, “With increasing awareness of the economic value of seaweed, mapping the extent of this resource is vital for sustainable management decisions. This is an exciting collaboration between industry, small business and research institutions, which will utilise the latest innovations and the expertise of Ireland’s national seabed mapping programme INFOMAR.”

The blend of three successful consortia have the scope to address the development of a feasible, cost effective, and scalable solution for baseline seaweed resource assessment and future monitoring.

Aerial Agri Tech bring expertise from the terrestrial to the marine domain. As an Irish company supported by IT Carlow, they are already active in the agriculture and forestry sectors, and are experienced in the commercial use of fixed wing drones with multispectral sensors and related data analytics for resource assessment. Wild Irish Seaweeds as their industry partner will provide key support in enabling the transition to seaweed resource assessment.

Fathom, a business technology consulting company based in Dublin have partnered with the Centre for High End Computing (ICHEC) at National University of Ireland Galway and Arramara Teo to focus on the potential for satellite data augmented by groundtruthing to address the challenge.

Techworks Marine, a provider of oceanographic solutions to monitor the marine environment have teamed up with GeoAerospace, a geospatial information technology company with expertise in spaceborne & airborne remote sensing, cloud platforms and machine learning, and with the School of Botany and Plant Science at National University of Ireland Galway.

Over the initial four months, the consortia will develop the technical feasibility of their proposed concept, via robust evidence based case studies. Pending progress evaluation in early 2021, either one or two companies will receive additional funding and progress into Phase 2A. This will involve an eight month demonstrator to proof the scalability of the solution, and to develop a clear path to commercialisation.

The successful candidates will have the potential to develop a niche coastal habitat mapping service, expandable beyond seaweed resource assessment thereafter, to support ancillary services possibly including marine pollution, harmful algal bloom and/or invasive species monitoring.

Commenting on the awarding of the contracts, SBIR Manager at Enterprise Ireland, Paul Maguire added, “Small Business Innovation Research administered by Enterprise Ireland falls under what is defined as pre-commercial procurement which enables public sector bodies to connect with small businesses to provide innovative solutions to societal problems for which there is no current solution. SBIR Challenges are particularly suited to small and medium-sized business, as contracts are of relatively low value and operate in short timescales. Challenges are 100% funded and the participant companies retain the intellectual property generated from the project so that they can monetise their work to other relevant public sector bodies both domestic and international. The application of research and innovation to business challenges is critical to the success of the Irish economy and a central aspect of Enterprise Ireland’s work across the world.”

The SBIR challenge is coordinated by the Marine Institute’s Advanced Mapping Services team, funded through the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications via the INFOMAR seabed mapping programme, jointly managed by Geological Survey Ireland and the Marine Institute.

The SBIR project is resourced through a €300,000 grant co-funded by Enterprise Ireland and the Marine Institute, the latter through the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) 2014-2020, Blue Growth and Marine Spatial Planning Scheme.