Open Innovation XPRIZE For Seafloor Mapping

Published Aug-22-19

A new way to autonomously map the sea floor for longer periods in a variety of environments and in a fraction of the time it takes traditional manned vessels.

XPRIZE Foundation, United States

The Story:

Open Innovation XPRIZE For Seafloor Mapping The oceans cover approximately 71 percent of the Earth's surface and contain around 97% of the planet's water. Yet for all its ubiquity most of it remains unexplored, undiscovered and unmapped. There may well be a lot of sea on the planet, but we have hardly got to the bottom of any of it.

There are many reasons for this including the expense, limited technological advancements and the challenges of exploring an extreme environment where pressures and temperatures are intense. To address this a three-year global open innovation contest was launched in December 2015, the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE.

XPRIZE Competition

This $7 million contest incentivized teams to advance deep-sea technologies for autonomous, fast, high-resolution ocean exploration. With current technologies, mapping sections of the sea floor can take several days. The XPRIZE competition wanted teams to autonomously map hundreds of square kilometers of the sea floor at a five-meter resolution in less than 24 hours, without human involvement.

The contest called for teams to develop robotic technology to travel from a coastal location out to the open ocean to map the sea floor under extremely deep water.

A total of 32 teams participated in the competition with members from more than 25 countries including Ghana, Japan, Norway and Germany. Participants ranged from junior high school students to industry veterans with more than 30 years' worth of experience.

Following a round one technology readiness test, nine grand finalists were chosen by the independent panel of judges to take part in the second and final round of testing. They had to autonomously map and image the sea floor at 4000 meters beneath the sea surface.

XPRIZE Winners

The overall winner was a 14-nation team called GEBCO-NF (International) for their innovation which integrated existing and emerging technologies. They developed an unmanned self-powered surface vessel called Sea-Kit which can transport a smaller underwater vessel out to sea, deploy it and return it back to land when the mission is over.

Sea-Kit serves a number of other functions including being a telecommunications portal and data collection platform, all without humans onboard. The team also incorporated a cloud-based data processing system that allows for rapid seabed visualization.

The global open innovation contest also offered an additional award, the $1M National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Bonus Prize. To win this teams had to detect a biological and chemical signal and then track it back to its source.

The winner was junior high school team Ocean Quest from San Jose, California, picking up a check for $800,000. The $200,000 runner up was Tampa Deep Sea Xplorers from Florida.

“Currently, more than 80 percent of the world’s ocean is unmapped, and I'm proud to have worked alongside the people who will change this as a part of this XPRIZE,” said Executive Director of the Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, Jyotika Virmani, Ph.D.

“Our vision is that these new technologies will enable the discovery of new ocean species, underwater resources, geological features, and safer methods of exploring the deep sea, while illuminating the mysteries of the deep and discovering what has remained unknown since the dawn of time.”

Speeding Up Ocean Floor Mapping

According to organizers of the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, it is estimated that the entire ocean floor will be mapped in about a couple of hundred years. However, as a result of innovations coming out of the competition that task should now take about ten years.

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