Aquaponics is feedback and two-player systems, in which fish and crops mutually benefit from one another and, therefore require close monitoring, management, and control.
Vast amount of data and information flow from the aquaponics plant itself with its huge amount of smart sensors for water quality, fish and plant growth, system state, etc., and from the stakeholder, e.g., farmers, retailers and end consumers. The intelligent management of aquaponics is only possible if this data and information are managed and used in an intelligent way.
Fish rearing in aquacultures and Greenhouse cultivation of vegetables are today becoming increasingly important in human food production due to several factors. The most relevant include
- Food price increases
- Reduced amount of quality water to fish and irrigation
- Increased use of arable land for production of raw materials for biodiesel
- Increased toxicity of arable land with heavy metals, excessive and or misuse of fertilizers as well as long-term contamination due to pesticides
- Global climate change
- Overfishing. Global trends show that these conditions will continue to rise in the near future.
In a recent study , authors investigated the feasibility of sustaining current and increased per capita fish consumption rates in 2050 based on extensive data: predictions of changes in global and regional climate, marine ecosystem and fisheries production estimates, human population estimates, fishmeal and oil price estimations and projections of the technological development in aquaculture technology.
The authors concluded that the current and larger consumption rates can be meet, despite population growth and the impacts of climate change on fish production, only if the fish resources are managed intelligently, sustainably, and effectively. Therefore, the demand for producing agricultural products that are as environmentally friendly and resource-saving as they are highly efficient is increasing  .
Aquaponics technology is one of them and is defined as a food production technology that couples aquaculture (production of fish) and horticulture as hydroponics in one system . Hereby, the fish and the crops can highly benefit from one another.
Our previous research on this topic in the INAPRO project described in    focused on technological innovations such as DRAPS (ASTAF-PRO technology), filtering systems, and optimal design of the aquaponics system.
The technology was implemented in several demonstration sites e.g., in Spain, China, Germany, Belgium, etc. a model-based system for control and the management of water, energy, and nutrients were developed based on the Classical automation pyramid (SCADA, MES, etc.) . The modeling approach allowed the optimization of all details in the design, construction, integration, and operation of the system, proving the technical and economic feasibility of INAPRO.
From this previous study, several topics which needed research were identified as intelligent information utilization to create transparency in the aquaponics processes, optimize resources usage (water, energy, and fertilizer), and system performance prediction for early warning. Therefore, the enhanced version of the INAPRO Project described in this paper aims to tackle these research topics.
The new concept is information-based and connects demonstration aquaponic farms of the INAPRO Project from different parts of the world and collects all data in one central database and manages the data intelligently for added value.
A web-based platform for different stakeholders contains such diverse information as fish farm sensor data, environmental data, store standard operating procedures (SOPs), information on sustainability, and online tracking information during the delivery of fish.
Data-based analysis of the aquaponics system can help to optimize workflows and increase productivity by allowing drastic reduction of water for the fish and irrigation, increased density of the products (fish and plants) per unit area, reduction in the impacts of climate change as well as allowing the application of biocontrol as an effective alternative to traditional methods of plant protection.
The project has three main objectives:
- Collection of data on fish culture in farms, as well as supply chain and cold chain monitoring.
- Data integration and modeling to optimize growth, farming practices, and shelf life.
- Provide data to stakeholders (farmers, maintenance companies) and consumers/end users (e.g. retailers, restaurants).
This will help achieve the following outcomes which are in alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 2, 11, 13, 16.
- Improving conventional aquaponics to provide local, healthy, and sustainable food.
- Producing high-quality food while saving water, energy, and nutrients, reducing wastewater discharge and CO2 emissions.
- Support for renewable energy equipment and heating systems.
- Develop model-based modular and scalable regionalized aquaponic facilities.
- Mobilize industry and stakeholders into promoting commercialization.
The overarching IT structure will not only act as a repository for data but also as a computational unit. It will connect all demonstration aquaponics farms and end-users by a web interface. In this way parameters affecting growth and environment and other sensor data can be tracked and displayed online and utilized to make the prediction models robust. An additional calculation tool will even enable users to predict the shelf life of fish.
In this way, the project will provide more transparency on the rearing of fish and crops and environmental conditions and a better exchange of good practices among different geographical regions. This will allow customers to make a favorable buying decision.
Brief Description of the INAPRO Aquaponics
First, The EU-INAPRO aquaponics design is based on double recirculation , where the Recirculation Aquaculture System (RAS) and the Greenhouse and Hydroponics systems are separated. The main advantage of such a double recirculation aquaponic system is that optimum conditions can be set up independently in the aquaculture and in the hydroponic units. This gives the possibility to increase the productivity of both sectors without generating adverse interactions between the plants and the fish.
Intelligent Information Management System
The Intelligent Information Management System for the aquaponics system is illustrated in Figure 3. It is a free structure unlike the classical automation pyramid  with its hierarchical structure and its fixed information flow from bottom to the top. All information will be collected in a central database as in .
Models will be applied and simulated data will be fed back to the IIM and displayed on stakeholder-specific websites or in a mobile app.
Aquaponics webpages and a mobile app will be targeted to different stakeholders and customer segments. The consumer can enter the tracking code, QR code, or even a barcode and relevant growth data will be displayed. There will also be an app for smartphones. A fish farm owner can view online sensor data, actual and modeled growth curves and compare data with other fish farms.
The platform collects data from all system components (Fish tanks, Bio and mechanical filters, Greenhouse climate, hydroponics, Fish and plants) on size, water quality (physical—pH, total dissolved solids (TDS), turbidity, temperature, and chemical—DO, Biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), electroconductivity (EC), Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrates, etc.), actual filter efficiencies, feeding patterns and weather conditions using mobile devices, sensors, and automated feeders.
Combined with other data, the algorithms go to work to provide recommendations such as feeding management strategies and optimal harvest dates and detection of anomalies occurring in the system, amount of additional fertilizer to be added to the system, recirculation pump flow, and greenhouse environmental control. Encapsulated in the Intelligent Information Management system are besides other components, data utilization functions, e.g., for predictive analytics, system optimization, and diagnosis and anomaly detection. The two will be described in the following sections.
Aquaponics System Optimization
Due to the structure of the DRAPS system (double recirculation), the optimization of the RAS and the Greenhouse-Hydroponics system can be done separately (see Figure 4) to get optimal conditions for both fish and crops, provided the production cycles and quantities of the fish and plants are optimized appropriately in the design phase. To find the optimal start date for fish production, the system should be run several times with different start dates for the fish production, because the plant production cycle is very seasonal dependent.
As in , for the RAS and the Greenhouse Hydroponics, the main objectives are to maximize fish and plant growth rate, reduce water use and water discharge for environmental protection, maximize renewable energy factor, minimize energy for heating, electricity, and pumping and find the lowest operation cost and the lowest CO2 emissions.
For the RAS, the operators have the aim to maximize the revenue above the variable costs (π). Besides the direct monetary costs induced by the stock, water and electrical power use and feeding the fish, there are some costs which can incur due to suboptimal system operation, e.g., if the filters are not completely removing metabolic wastes such as ammonia which can even cause mortality to fish.
Key Benefits of the Intelligent Management System
FigureThe modularity, scalability, and viability of the INAPRO system have been proven in many demonstration sites, e.g., in Germany with 573 m2 greenhouse produces 24 tonnes of African catfish and 11 tonnes of tomatoes and another large scale site in China of 2100 m2 of greenhouse produces 30 tonnes of fish and 360 tonnes of vegetables. All the sites have been running at <3% freshwater input. The resulting benefits of the system are
- Improved productivity. DRAPS provides optimized conditions for both fish and plants.
- Costs and resources savings. Efficient double use of water and energy, model-based optimization, reducing sewage and the amount of fertilizer used. The reduction of fish water emission saves costs for freshwater and wastewater treatment and protects the environment and regaining evaporated water.
- Reduction of freshwater consumption. Compared to conventional (RAS) which requires a daily water input representing 10% of the total amount of water circulating  , INAPRO cuts this rate to 1% – 3%. The freshwater demand is minimized by a secondary clarification step in the RAS circuit and using evaporated water from the plant section which is regained via cooling traps.
- Automated system management. Production conditions are adjusted automatically model-based on the analysis of different sensors and historical data
- Competitive advantages. High-value products for consumers who are concerned about the environmental impact. Transparency through product tracing, achieving higher retail prices.
An information management system for aquaponics has been presented. The aquaponics system is based on double recirculation technology, which enables the set-up of optimal conditions for both fish and plants. Fish and plant health and welfare are ensured with the help of smart sensors monitoring water quality and biological parameters of the fish and plants in the fish tanks, before and after the filters, fertilizer requirements, and intelligent information management (e.g., remote monitoring diagnosis and anomaly detection based on collected data, predictive analytics and system optimization for minimizing the use of resources and maximizing yield).
Cameras are installed to measure fish and plant growth. It is implemented according to the Aquaculture industry 4.0 and its management system does not follow the outdated classical automation pyramid with its bottom-up, layer to layer structure. It looks at the digitalization of the whole value chain from production to customers.
This will enable full traceability and transparency in the processes, increasing consumers’ trust in aquaponics products. The sustainability and efficient use of natural resources will benefit from the implementation of digital technologies and data management in real-time monitoring of water and aquaponics farm conditions.
Source: Karimanzira, D., Na, C., Hong, M., & Wei, Y. (2021). Intelligent Information Management in Aquaponics to Increase Mutual Benefits. Intelligent Information Management, 13(1), 50-69.