Exploring and mapping the ocean depths with drones

Written by: Eureka! | Published:

It’s been said, we know more about deep space than the deep ocean. True or not, a $7 million XPrize has been set up to challenge innovators, engineers and designers from around the world to advance unmanned autonomous underwater vehicles to reveal more about the hidden world of the deep ocean.

“Our oceans cover two-thirds of our planet’s surface, yet 95% of the deep sea remains a mystery to us,” says Dr Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of XPrize. “We have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of our own seafloor.”

XPrize is a non-profit organisation that sets up incentivised competitions to solve humanity’s grand challenges. The three-year Shell Ocean Discovery XPrize is a global competition to advance deep sea technologies for autonomous fast exploration and after 18 months entries have been narrowed down to 21 semi-finalists.

“The semifinalists are pushing the boundaries in developing deep-sea underwater technologies that will work in the lightless, cold depths to fully map one of our world’s final frontiers like never before,” says Jyotika Virmani, XPrize senior director with XPrize’s Energy and Environment Group. “We have an unprecedented opportunity to create next generation tools, technologies and techniques that will illuminate deep sea wonders and unlock a new era of ocean exploration.”

The teams are now beginning Round 1 tests, where they must deploy vehicles at a depth of 2,000m and map at least 20% of the 500km2 competition area at 5m resolution, while identifying and imaging at least five archaeological, biological or geological features – all within 16 hours. Put in perspective this is deeper than the Grand Canyon and over an area nearly five times the size of Paris.

Among the entries is UK contingent Team Tao that is developing an autonomous swarm system for rapid surface to deep ocean exploration. And German team Arggonauts, which is creating a swarm of 12 intelligent deep sea robot drones (pictured).

Up to 10 finalist teams will be selected to proceed past Round 1 and will split a $1 million milestone prize purse. In Round 2, they will need to operate at a depth of 4,000m, aim to map at least 50% of the 500km2 competition area at 5m resolution, identifying and imaging at least 10 archaeological, biological or geological features at any depth, all within 24 hours.

At the end of the competition, a $4 million Grand Prize and $1 million Second Place Prize will be awarded to the teams that receive the top scores for demonstrating the highest resolution seafloor mapping, after meeting all minimum requirements for speed, autonomy and depth.

“Spurring innovation and creating radical breakthroughs in ocean discovery are what excite us about collaborating with XPrize,” says David Schewitz, Shell vice president of geophysics for the Americas. “Shell recognises the need to leverage the full power of innovation: the capacity for doing things differently and better than before.”

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