Monitoring ocean conditions can be a pretty tricky business. In order to understand ocean dynamics, and how marine ecosystems operate, scientists need data on things like temperature, depth, and pH. Knowing these parameters over the course of time is incredibly helpful in understanding the underwater world. Due to the unique environmental challenges that ocean researchers face, and the vastness of the sea, many unknowns still exist. One research team from a Saudi university has set out to get answers using the power of fish! Bluefin™ is a wearable, stretchable, “skin-like” technology that uses silicon to “measure water temperature, pressure, depth, and pH levels in parts of the ocean where humans cannot reach,” states the university website.
Ocean conditions are measured over time by tagging marine animals with electronic devices that can stay attached for extended periods. This gives researchers the advantage of experiencing the ocean in ways that only a fish can. Deeper depths, longer time spans and hard-to-reach places are all more accessible through this kind of technology. The devices that are currently used to gather information are expensive (some costing more than $5,000 per tag!), heavy, and oftentimes invasive to marine animals. There is a great need for tags that are inexpensive, secure and also miniature. While not mass-produced just yet, the device currently costs approximately $500 per tag.
The researchers out of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia just won the 2020 CES Innovation award for their invention of Bluefin™. The project was the joint brainchild of the electrical engineering and marine sciences departments at the university. PhD student Joanna Nassar developed the trademarked technology under Professor Muhammad Mustafa Hussain.
The wearable tag is designed to attach in a non-invasive way, using glue. “Our challenge is figuring out the right type of glue or non-invasive attachment,” Nassar explains, “So far we have tested Bluefin™ on hard shell marine animals such as crabs, soft-skinned mammals such as dolphins, bluefin tunas, whale sharks, stingrays, and gold fish (with scaling skin).
Typically, tags are species-specific and are attached externally through skin anchoring, suction cups, glue, or through internal implantation. Manatee research employs the use of fashionable belts, fitted around the peduncle (where the tail meets the body). The Bluefin™ technology is lighter weight and thinner than many of the other options out there, which reduces drag and helps to maintain the natural movements of the species being tagged.
“It is adaptable to any size and shape of marine species such as a seal, a shark, or even marine plants due to its stretchable nature”
The technology was first rigorously tested in high pressure tanks before it was put to the test in the salty waters of the Red Sea with stellar results. At 2 kilometers (or approximately 6,500 feet), the device transmits data on important parameters such as temperature, depth, pH, salinity and pressure to researchers in real time.
Ongoing field studies will determine how the tags perform under different pressure changes and abrasion from other wildlife, and the technology holds promise for monitoring water quality in a variety of applications. Nassar told Forbes.com that her continued research involves “integrating motion detection and geolocation features,” and “extending the reliability of the technology for long term yearly deployments to get in par with full commercialization quality level”.
“We are providing marine scientists around the world with the tool to enable safe, low-cost, and widespread in-situ study of ocean health to support conservation and management of marine ecosystems, otherwise not possible with current state-of-the-art marine tags,” says Nassar.