In a new report, KAUST researchers overview novel wearable technology for marine animals and how it can underpin an internet of marine life, a new concept that will strengthen blue economies. 

Thuwal, Saudia Arabia, 28th June 2023 / Sciad Newswire / Kaust / Understanding how natural environments respond to human activity is critical for sustainability. For ocean environments, this requires monitoring sea life, a goal that requires a new generation of sensors that brings wearable technology underwater.

In a perspective paper published in Nature Biotechnology, an international team of scientists led by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) alumna Altynay Kaidarova and Ibn Sina Distinguished Professor Carlos M. Duarte examines the challenges and potential solutions in wearable technology for marine animals. Improvements in this technology, which is a major effort of KAUST’s Sensor Initiative, will provide valuable data for the conservation and restoration of marine communities and habitats while allowing blue economies to grow. They will also lead to a new concept introduced in the paper: the internet of marine life.

Our well-being and economies are increasingly dependent on healthy oceans. For us to continue benefitting from the richness of the oceans, we must be able to track the health of marine life”, said Duarte. “For this reason, I led a project, funded under KAUST’s Sensor Initiative, to bring the wearable revolution to the ocean,” Duarte said about the importance of wearable technology in ocean research.

A generation ago, wearable fitness trackers, smartwatches, and other smart wearables were a rarity. Today, wearable technology is widespread, helping track our health and activities. It is even used to monitor livestock and wildlife. However, bringing wearables to marine life is a much bigger challenge because of the unique conditions of the sea.

“Oceans are a different environment from land. Just like people need oxygen tanks and proper diving gear to stay in the water for a long time, we need special technology for sensors. It is not as simple as taking a wearable sensor we use on a cow and putting it on a dolphin. The sea has different pressure, salinity, biofouling. All sorts of conditions that we can ignore on the ground must be considered when deploying sensors in the sea,” said Kaidarova, a specialist in wearable sensors and who joined the Central Asian Institute of Ecological Research in Kazakhstan after earning her PhD at KAUST.

One other important factor in the design of wearable technology for marine animals is animal well-being. The sensors should not encumber movement nor should they affect the animal’s behavior. A heavy or bulky wearable may compromise natural activity and be nothing more than a nuisance generating flawed data. With this in mind, the paper examined six current technologies, including marine skin and nanosensors, and their deployment on marine life.

Furthermore, while using GPS on our smartphones is a daily habit for many, the radio waves this technology depends on are ineffective undersea. Acoustic waves are the preferred source of data transmission for many sea animals, but it is slow for the high-throughput data exchange required for the internet of things. Instead, the report explores the combination of an underwater wireless optical network and machine learning, both of which are technologies undergoing intensive research at KAUST. Another challenge is supplying the wearables with enough energy to operate for a long time. In response, the authors propose a sensor system that can harvest energy in the sea, including using the motions of the animals themselves.

“When I challenged top engineers to join me in developing wearables for marine animals, they rapidly realized the challenges of electric conductivity, corrosion, pressure, fouling on surfaces, and opaqueness to radio waves, but we found solutions for marine wearables that can also help resolve challenges in many other environments”, Duarte added.

The deployment of wearables for marine animals will enable reliable data collection on ocean habitats and its inhabitants from three distinct marine environments: aquaculture facilities, open oceans and coastal habitats. The authors discuss how an internet of marine life can be built through the new wearable and data transmission technologies proposed, which will provide actionable and comprehensive information on animal health, nutrition, growth, reproduction and stress. The information gathered will also provide better understanding of ocean health and the impact of human activity, such as anthropogenic noise, on marine life.


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Notes for Editors 


Established in 2009, KAUST is a graduate research university devoted to finding solutions for some of the most pressing scientific and technological challenges in the world, as well as Saudi Arabia, in the areas of food and health, water, energy, environment and the digital domain. 

KAUST brings together the best minds from around the world to advance research. More than 120 different nationalities live, work and study on campus. KAUST is also a catalyst for innovation, economic development and social prosperity, with research resulting in novel patents and products, enterprising startups, regional and global initiatives, and collaboration with other academic institutions, industries and government agencies.  

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