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These Robots Could Help Map the Seafloor in Unprecedented Detail

Nine teams are advancing in the XPRIZE Foundation’s $7 million contest to create technologies that will scale up humanity’s ability to understand and chart the deep ocean.

Written by Paul Tullis Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
The PISCES team in Portugal gets ready for testing.Fernando Teixeira

Increasingly advanced underwater drones are going to a place that few humans have traveled: the deep sea.

The XPRIZE Foundation announced finalists last week for its Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, a three-year, $7 million international competition to create technologies that will map and image the seafloor faster, more efficiently and in more detail than before.

After judges inspected their prototypes, nine teams from the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Switzerland, Portugal and Germany advanced from a pool of 21 semi-finalists. Their aim is to develop autonomous or remotely operated technology that can be launched from shore and, without humans physically present, produce a high-resolution map of a portion of ocean floor and bring back detailed images of biological, archaeological or geological features.

Just 5 percent of the ocean’s floor has been mapped in high-resolution detail. Today, we have better images of the surface of Mars. “This is a vital piece of understanding our own planet, and it’s amazing we don’t have that kind of information at our fingertips,” said Jyotika Virmani, senior director, planet and environment, at XPRIZE.

Will Duke University’s Blue Devil Ocean Engineering team make it to the deep ocean? (Zakee Kuduro-Thomas)

Applications of such data range from environmental to humanitarian to historical to medical. Knowing the depth of water column in specific locations can help with tsunami prediction, as the size of a wave is largely related to the shape of the seafloor. A better map could help locate the Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared over the ocean four years ago, for example, or the estimated 3 million shipwrecks that UNESCO estimates litter the ocean floor. The ecosystems of the deep ocean are also believed to be home to a host of potential medical cures.

Among the teams to advance were a Swiss group using underwater robots equipped with lasers, a team of students and faculty from Duke University that will deploy airborne drones to drop and retrieve sonar pods and a group of alumni of an ocean mapping training program at the University of New Hampshire who are combining underwater and surface vessels. Final testing of each team’s technology is scheduled to occur in the fall of 2018 at a depth of 13,123ft (4,000m), during which teams will have a limited amount of time to map and produce images from a 200 square mile (500 square km) area of seabed. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will also award a $1 million bonus prize to a team that can detect and trace to its source a chemical or biological signal that suggests the presence of ocean life or other interesting marine features.

GEBCO/Nippon Foundation Alumni finalist team’s technology being inspected in Norway. (Anders Jørgensen)

The competition is a return to XPRIZE’s roots: When the prize was first conceived in the mid-1990s, the founders considered awarding it for either sending people up into space or down to the Mariana Trench, the ocean’s deepest spot, said Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. (They ultimately chose space.) The Ocean Discovery Prize is “about extending the sphere of human imagination and capability,” he said. “People tend to care about things they can see so if we want to improve the health of our oceans, being able to measure what’s going on there is the first step.”

Recent advances in autonomous underwater vehicles made the prize possible —progress underpinned by leaps in artificial intelligence, data analytics and material sciences such as 3D-printing. Already, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization deploys an underwater robot called the Starbug X that can map the seafloor at depths of up to 328ft (100m). Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography developed swarms of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) to study ocean currents and how they transport plankton. Some of the XPRIZE finalists are deploying surface vehicles similar to the autonomous Wave Glider and SailDrone as relays for deployment, charging and communications.

Texas A&M University in Houston, Texas, gets ready for competition. (Woodruff Patrick Laputka)

The only entirely student-led team among the finalists, led by Dylan Blakeslee, a senior at Texas A&M, will launch a drone that will transport an AUV to the surface above an area to be mapped. The AUV would then relay its data acoustically to the surface vehicle, which converts it to a radio signal that can be transmitted to a satellite.

Blakeslee said he is aiming above the requirements for the prize – rather than a goal of mapping at a minimum 16ft (5m) resolution, he wants to produce one at under 3.2ft (1m) resolution. He said he hopes to develop a technology that’s useful long after the prize is awarded: “We grew into the idea of creating something that’s going to last and is able to be implemented,” Blakeslee said. The team is relying on guidance and investments from companies such as Oceaneering and Deep Down, which provide hardware for the oil industry and other customers.

Team Tao, in the U.K. (Luca Verducci)

Virmani played down prize sponsor Shell’s interest in using the technology developed for the prize for oil-and-gas exploration, saying the company wants to use the technology to assess pipeline spills so it can more rapidly respond to leaks. “This technology is just looking at the surface, not what lies underneath,” she said. But it’s clear that to explore for fossil fuels below the seafloor, the first thing that’s needed is a good map. That is also true for companies that now want to mine minerals from sensitive ecosystems of the seabed.

Nevertheless, Martin Jakobsson, professor of marine geology and geophysics at Stockholm University, expects great things from the Ocean Discovery prize.

Today, detailed seafloor mapping exclusively from ships is prohibitively expensive and logistically difficult, requiring a long array of transducers to narrow the echo-sounding beam to the necessary resolution.

Team Kuroshio poses in Japan. (Woodruff Patrick Laputka)

“The closer you can get [as with AUVs], the higher resolution you can get and the better data you will get, so this is one step forward to higher resolution,” said Jakobsson, the lead author of the roadmap for the Seabed 2030 project, which aims to map the entire seafloor. “We really need these innovative approaches to get to our goal, and competitions like this to do the necessary advances. I think this will take us one step forward.”

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