October 17, 2016      

The earth’s underwater landscape, largely ignored due to the danger and expense of exploring it, is a step closer to being at least mapped, thanks to an Xprize competition.

The organizers of the Shell Ocean Discovery Xprize contest picked 32 robotics teams on Oct. 13 to pitch their plans to build semi-autonomous systems capable of high-resolution underwater mapping at depths of up to 13,123 feet (4,000 meters).

Participants come from university research departments, startups, and established companies such as Exocetus Autonomous Systems.

Like other Xprize competitions — notably the contest that jumpstarted the autonomous transportation industry — participants are vying for a monetary prize.

In this case, the Xprize organization and the U.S. government have pledged a total of $7 million in performance awards for the three-year, two-round competition.

“This is a really interesting moment in history,” said Jyotika Virmani, prize lead and senior director of Xprize’s energy and environment group. “The world is increasingly digitized, and we can tap into that.”

“Part of this [contest] is to inspire people with what’s down there,” said Virmani.

Petroleum giant Royal Dutch Shell PLC is co-sponsoring the competition in part because it can profit from better maps of ocean floors, she said. At the same time, better mapping technology makes exploration and production safer for its workers.

All teams must meet or exceed requirements for autonomy as well as operational depth and speed, while working entirely from shore.

The Ocean Discovery Xprize is intended to advance undersea mapping.

Image of deep-sea vents and volcanic activity in the Mariana Trench.

“Mission control will be on shore,” said Virmani. “It’s going to be like going Mars. Teams will have to learn how to communicate” with systems and manage them from a distance, without physical connections.

It is a bit more than that. Beyond simply having to survive an ocean environment, all undersea robots will have to be launched and recovered remotely. The same is true for resupplying power systems — no one will be allowed to get in the water to swap batteries or refuel a tank.

A $4 million grand prize and a $1 million runner-up award will go to the top two teams producing the sharpest maps of the contest area. The 10 top-achieving teams will share the $1 million “milestone” prize.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has promised $1 million to share among teams that can spot objects, planted by NOAA, that cannot be seen with sonar, radar, or a camera.

“We’ll give teams biological and chemical signals to sniff,” Virmani said.

25 teams in Round 1 for the Ocean Discovery Xprize

In December, judges will choose the 25 best plans from the 32 submissions to kick off the first round of competition, which will begin February 2017.

During that phase, robotics teams will have 16 hours to have their systems map up to 20 percent of the 500-square-kilometer contest area from a depth of 6,561 feet (2,000 meters) with a resolution of 16.4 feet, or 5 meters. Virmani said that state-of-the-art maps today have a resolution of 3.1 miles (5 kilometers).

More on Drones and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles:

Going deep for Round 2

To move on to the next round, teams also will have to identify and get images of at least five archeological, biological, or geological features at any depth.

Round 2 doubles most of the requirements. Those that make it that far will share the milestone money.

A maximum of 10 teams in the second phase will have 24 hours to deploy systems to 13,123 feet, map 50 percent of the contest area at a resolution of 16.4 feet, and discern 10 or more features.

Arggonauts, a team from Germany, has already participated in two previous projects that were financed by nonprofit research organization Fraunhofer Gesellschaft in 2009 and 2012. The Arggonauts group is expected to use interconnected surface ships.

Virmani said that Blue Devil Ocean Engineering, a team from Duke University, will use drones to drop and retrieve sonar pods in the competition. The school’s site has a photograph of a six-bladed helicopter being tested.

The chosen teams come from 22 nations. One team includes experts from 34 countries. The following nations are represented:

  • Canada
  • China
  • France
  • Germany
  • Ghana
  • India
  • Israel
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Malaysia
  • Mexico
  • Monaco
  • The Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Russia
  • South Korea
  • Switzerland
  • Thailand
  • The U.K.
  • The U.S.