Fishing for Answers in the Deep Blue Sea

The IoT can help us better understand how industrial fishing impacts sharks and other important marine species. But sometimes the technology fails to reel in answers.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor

Data was received from only 79 percent of the 731 PSATs deployed. This indicates that in 21 percent of cases, the tags either failed for some unknown reason or perhaps functioned as they were supposed to but popped up in a place where the Argos satellite network does not provide adequate coverage, and researchers thus never received their transmissions.

But the really damning part of the analysis is that of the 79 percent of tags that sent data that was received, only 18 percent popped up after reaching their preset pop-up date. Does that mean that in the remaining 82 percent, the animal perished prior to the release date? Not even close. According to the data collected, only 2.3 percent of the tagged animals presumably died. That means that 97.7 percent of the tags popped up early due to some mechanical or electronic failure.

Musyl was quick to point out that failures are not always the manufacturer's fault. Sometimes, an infection emerges at the site where the tag is pierced into the target's body, causing the surface to erode to the point where the tag simply falls off. In other cases, some type of biofilm grows on the tag and compromises its structure, leading to a failure. He told me manufacturers are experimenting with coatings that contain antimicrobial agents designed to prevent this growth.

Unless the tag is physically recovered from the vast sea, which seldom happens, it's impossible to diagnose the failure.

Costs are falling, but PSATs are very expensive—between $1,000 and $4,000 apiece—and most marine research projects operate on tight budgets. Plus, when tags fail, the scientists' time and the resources required to find and tag the marine species are often wasted.

So my initial enthusiasm that advanced sensors were aiding important scientific and environmental research in a remote corner of the Pacific was met by disappointment that the technology is failing to meet researchers' desires.

Technology is always changing and—hopefully—improving. But hearing about the PSATs' performance limitations makes me wonder how they compare to wireless sensors used in industrial applications or other, business-focused sectors. What are the acceptable failure rates that your company or industry demands from wireless sensors or IoT systems? Send me an e-mail at mc@iotjournal.com, and let me know. Perhaps this is the kernel of an interesting investigation for IOT Journal.

Mary Catherine O'Connor is the editor of IOT Journal and a former staff reporter for RFID Journal. She also writes about technology, as it relates to business and the environment, for a range of consumer magazines and newspapers.

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