DISEASE costs the aquaculture industry globally more than £6 billion every year, but a Scottish firm is unveiling how a fully automated vaccination system it is developing could sweep away the old manual process.

Aqualife Services, based at the University of Stirling, has vaccinated more than 1.6bn fish worth £10bn since starting up in 1996 - and is now a market leader supporting vaccine companies and fish farms around the world.

It is unveiling its Inoca, semi-automated fish vaccination unit, with a fully automated unit currently in development – and its boss said there is no reason the same technology could not be applied to vaccinating humans.

CEO Gordon Jeffery, the driving force behind the world-first technology, said: “We started thinking about automating manual vaccination way back in 2003, and at the time were awarded a government grant to look at the feasibility of building such a system, but we were too far ahead of the curve.

“Now the technology has caught up, and we commissioned the building of a proof-of-concept system called ‘The Inocubot’ – a fully automated vaccination system using cameras to determine where the fish is, so we can instruct a robot to inject it, while also determining the fish health, fins and gill colour, and storing the images for future use.

“It’s worked so well we’re now building a three-robot commercial prototype, with funding from the Scottish Government and a small equity raise, and we plan to roll out the first system in 2022.”

The company borrowed from Scottish Government Growth Scheme-supported Umi Debt Finance Scotland, which helps Scottish SMEs innovate, grow and diversify.

Its director, Tom Brock, said what Aqualife had achieved in such a short time was worth supporting: “Gordon and his team took an idea of semi automation and in just 18 months developed a unit which will speed up vaccinations for a much wider range of fish, making the entire process quicker and more affordable.”

Jeffery said their unit compared favourably to others on the market, and they already had huge interest from Africa and Asia.

He added: “Vaccine delivery has never been more talked about – and if we can automate it for fish, why not automate it for humans, so that you simply visit a booth in a shopping centre and there’s no need to overburden the health system and your local surgery. Innovate UK has given us a feasibility study grant to look into this, and I’m confident it will have international applications.”