Earth & Conservation

$7 Million Xprize Competition Incentivizes Mapping of the World’s Oceans

Nineteen teams are competing for prize money and bragging rights over the best autonomous technology for surveying the vast, unknown areas of the ocean floor.

The Xprize Foundation, established in 1995, is a non-profit organization that seeks to encourage technological development by facilitating global competitions aimed at solving specific problems. Past competitions have involved developing new medical technologies, artificial intelligence, new sources of energy, and — most famously — spaceships. The 2004 Ansari Xprize, after all, is credited with helping establish the commercial spaceflight industry.

The Ocean Discovery Xprize is a $7 million dollar global competition to develop new autonomous technologies for exploring and mapping the ocean floor. Organizers hope that the competition will accelerate all aspects of deep sea exploration, leading to new scientific discoveries in dozens of areas including oceanography, geology, marine biology, material science, and medicine.

Announced in 2015, the competition has attracted dozens of registrants from around the world, including teams backed by private technology companies, government agencies, and universities. The contest includes two scheduled test trials in which teams must generate underwater maps and images of a designated offshore area within a limited amount of time.

The top finishers will split the $1 million milestone prize and move on to a second round of testing, slated for September 2018 at 4,000 meter depths. At the end of the competition, a $4 million grand prize and $1 million second place prize will be awarded.

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Like any competition, the Ocean Discovery Xprize has some hard-and-fast rules. First and foremost, the exploration technologies must be unmanned and launched from shore. That means robots, and lots of 'em.

The competing teams approach the challenge differently, using various technologies including aerial drones, underwater autonomous vehicles, robot swarms, and artificial intelligence. The decision to limit the competition to automated technology is quite deliberate, said Jyotika Virmani, a senior director with Xprize’s energy and environment group.

“What we've done with this competition is remove the need for ships,” Virmani said. “Ships and crews are always the most expensive component. It can cost $60-120,000 per day to go out on the ocean. And if you're sailing for ten days before you even start mapping, you've lost a lot of money.”

Current estimates suggest it would take around $3 billion to map the entire sea floor using existing techniques and technologies, Virmani said. The expense has long hindered the development of coordinated global ocean exploration.

Each of the teams employ some combination of autonomous aerial, surface, and underwater vehicles. For instance, an aerial drone might fly from shore then drop a surface vehicle, which in turn deploys UAVs to dive to the ocean floor.

Blue Devil Ocean Engineering skips the surface vehicle entirely. Developed by a team of faculty and student engineers from Duke University in North Carolina, the Blue Devil system uses a heavy-lift 18-rotor drone to transport lightweight sonar imaging pods.

Once the pods are deployed, they operate autonomously beneath the ocean’s surface, mapping the underwater environment with sonar technology. The pods are equipped with onboard imaging equipment to capture underwater photos. Once the craft has completed its work, it ascends back to the sea surface where it's scooped up by the aerial drone for the return trip.

The aerial drone’s limited range restricts mapping to areas of the ocean relatively close to shore. The drone is powered by a hybrid gas-electric motor and can stay airborne with a 10-pound sonar pod for a little over an hour.

“Taking off from ships and other moving surfaces adds complexity to the autopilots,” said Martin Brooke, Blue Devil team leader and associate professor of electrical engineering at Duke.

Brooke said that participating in the Xprize competition has educational benefits. Duke has structured an entire sequence of undergraduate, graduate, and Ph.D courses around the project.

“I think our integration of the competition into the classroom is interesting,” Brooke said. “We are providing an opportunity for more folks at a diverse range of academic levels to be involved.”

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Other teams in the competition include a variety of public and private organizations from Canada, China, Germany, Ghana, India, Japan, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Eau'ligo, a private marine technology company based in Nice, France, is among them. The company is proposing to use a swarm of miniaturized submarines that each explore a small portion of the sea floor.

“Our solution is inspired by nature and bees,” said Eau'ligo CEO Christopher Lewis. “So just as bees go out and search in the fields and work together to find flowers, our marine bees do the same. Each one is a small robotic submarine that dives to the bottom, takes images and measures the depth to the ocean floor.”

Details on the Eau'ligo system are being kept largely under wraps until the first competition event, Lewis said. But Eau'ligo is hoping to commercialize its technology sooner rather than later.

“There are commercial applications for creating bathymetric maps, imaging the sea floor, and even single marine bees can be used for inspection of ships or marine work,” he said. “We would also like to make a consumer version so anyone can take it and use it to explore the ocean near them. Similar to the quadcopters and drones that now fill the air, we'd like to do the same for underwater drones.”

Organizers are hoping that the Ocean Discovery Xprize competition spins off many commercial endeavors. There's a reason of course that Shell oil company is a major sponsor of the competition. As a massive oil and gas interest, Shell could make use of detailed bathymetric maps for offshore exploration.

The XPRIZE Foundation is hoping that the competition will gradually bring more money and excitement into the field of deep-sea exploration. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the other major sponsor of the event. The federal agency is contributing a $1 million bonus prize to the team that can best demonstrate technology to “sniff out” a specified object in the ocean by tracing a biological and chemical signal to its source. The idea is to give scientists an option for tracking objects or marine animals that cannot otherwise be seen with sonar or cameras.

“Between Shell, NOAA, and ourselves, we have a broader mission to map the sea floor,” Virmani said. “We are looking at 2030 as the target to get a high-resolution map of everything.”

Relative to the other big XPRIZE categories, the Ocean Discovery initiative has flown under the radar. Part of the challenge, Virmani said, is ocean exploration can get oddly politicized. Many people automatically associate ocean exploration with potential ecological damage, and some of the hard data that comes from ocean studies — the acidification of seawater due to pollution, for instance — can be inconvenient for companies that might otherwise sponsor or fund research.

“The space guys don't have to deal with that,” she said.

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The irony, Virmani said, is that ocean exploration is far more likely than space exploration to deliver an immediate and practical return on investment.

“The example I like to use is: We live in a three-story house here on planet Earth, and we only know what's on the top floor,” she said. “What else is there on the other floors? What other kinds of medicines and materials and cures might we find?”  

“What the Xprize does,” she added, “is take the next step in pushing that technology along. The ultimate goal is to get a map of our entire planet, which we've never had in human history.”

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