Temple alumni develop new monitoring system for aquaponics

Faculty and students work in the Temple University Ambler Aquponics lab to develop new technologies.

Austin Smith and Justin Santoro aren’t interested in building a better mousetrap. Their focus is on fish — and plants — and ensuring both are thriving within a healthy aquaponics environment.

“Our plan was to develop a ‘one-stop shopping’ real-time monitoring system for aquaponics systems of any size,” said Smith, a May 2016 graduate of Temple University with a degree in Environmental Studies who partnered with Santoro, a fellow Temple alumnus who graduated in August with a degree in Film, to develop the system using available open source technology in a way that hadn’t been done before.

Smith said the goal of the technology is to ensure that the fish and plants “have enough resources to thrive.”

“It monitors pH, water quality, oxygen levels, temperature, humidity, lighting and more,” he said. “It’s a risk management system that lets the person overseeing the aquaponics system know if there is a change in nitrates, temperature or humidity.”

Smith and Santoro have a working prototype operating at Temple University Ambler’s aquaponics lab and soon plan to launch an app to provide aquaponics operators real-time data in the palm of their hand in addition alerts should problems arise.

“The user will have the ability to archive previous data to analyze how their system is doing over time,” Smith said. “We’re also in the beginning stages of ‘predicting’ the future — predicting trends and crop yields, for example, based on existing data sets.”

While most start-up phone and tablet apps are entertainment-related, Smith said, “that wasn’t something we were interested in doing.”

“You don’t typically find an app that’s focused on how food is grown. Justin and I both have a fascination with technology and have an entrepreneurial spirit, but we’re not trying to develop the next Facebook,” he said. “With my background in environmental studies, I’ve been educated in urban farming, food deserts and food justice — we’re exploring technological solutions to democratize the system.”

Mike Bavas, Senior Technical Support Specialist in Temple’s Computer Services Department who oversees the Aquaponics Lab at Temple Ambler, said the practical applications for Smith and Santoro’s research “certainly has the potential to be used by other faculty researchers across Temple.”

“One example is hydroponics research — determining how to get more crop per (water) drop. Our lab provides a good testing ground to help reduce the learning curve,” he said. “As a growing lab, we have the flexibility to work with entrepreneurial alumni to advance research to grow healthier food.”

Smith said having the Ambler Campus aquaponics lab available to them has been essential in moving their research forward.

“Having the lab here, having the Horticulture program and the Arboretum, that drew Justin and I to the campus immediately — there is so much available expertise to tap into. Having a working aquaponics system to partner with — and having the full support of the lab behind us — has been a huge step,” he said. “We’ve also had the opportunity to network with large aquaponics systems that have partnered with Temple’s lab.”

A second prototype of the monitoring system is being set up at Temple partner Evergreen Farms’ system, Smith said.   

“Mike has been a great mentor and it has been an incredibly supportive atmosphere,” he said. “We’ve been able to make great strides in our work in a very short amount of time.”