Team GEBCO-NF has won first place in the $7 million Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, which aimed to use autonomous vehicles and other technology to map the ocean’s floor. For taking the top prize in the challenge, the team earned $4 million from XPRIZE. Team Kuroshio from Japan was the runner up, winning $1 million. A special “Moonshot Award” prize of $200,000 was given to Team Tao of the U.K.
In addition, Team Ocean Quest placed first in the Bonus Prize, sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in which technology was used to track a chemical or biological signal and track it to its source. For coming closest to achieving the challenge objectives, the Ocean Quest team earned $800,000. The Tampa Deep Sea Xplorers team was the runner up, earning $200,000 and named as “most promising” technology.
Five teams from around the world competed in the finals of the event, held in November through December 2018 in the waters off of Kalamata, Greece. Teams were required to map at least 250 square meters of the sea floor down to depths of 4,000 meters, at five meter or higher resolution in a 24-hour time period, using unmanned or autonomous systems to bring back at least 10 images from the deep sea.
“The most exciting things we saw was that they did all of this unmanned,” said Jyotika Virmani, Ph.D., the prize lead for the challenge. “We were watching them execute these operations from onshore, it was very much as if we were at mission control at NASA. Not only did they execute the competition, but they also managed to make adjustments and changes remotely as the technology went around the ocean, and still maintain control of it.”
The five teams that competed in the finals in Greece included:
- CFIS, from Switzerland.
- Team TAO, from the U.K.
- GEBCO-NF Alumi, from the U.S.
- Kuroshio, from Japan
- ARGGONAUTS Fraunhofer IOSB, from Germany.
The GEBCO-NF team, led by Rochelle Wigley, Ph.D., and Yulia Zarayskaya, included members from 14 different nations integrating existing technologies and ocean-mapping experience with a low-cost unmanned surface vessel, the SeaKIT. In addition, they integrated a novel cloud-based data processing system that allowed for rapid seabed visualization.
The Kuroshio team, led by Takeshi Nakatani, Ph.D., integrated technologies from partners to create a surface vessel and software platform that can operate with different autonomous underwater vessles, which increases the versatility of their technology.
The Moonshot Award given to Team Tao was to recognize its “unique approach to seafloor mapping,” even though the team did not meet the criteria for the competition.
The biggest challenge for the teams and organizers was adapting to weather conditions during the time period allotted for the challenge. “Imagine that the team had laid out the map, the route that they were going to take, and then the weather shifts or the waves pick up,” Virmani said. “So they’d have to shift the tracks they were planning or slow down, or do different maneuvers or go to a different area.”
The challenge began in 2015 as a way to develop and advance ocean technologies for rapid, unmanned and high-resolution ocean exploration and discovery. Virmani said she was proud of what the teams achieved in terms of pushing the technology development of mapping the ocean floor.
“When we launched this competition, there were people well established in the industry who did not take part in the competition because they said it was too difficult, that we would never be achieved in our timelines,” Virmani said. “Now this has really shown that this is possible, and what was for them impossible back then has been achieved. I’m proud of everyone who took part and made this happen.”
Prior to the competition, experts estimated that the technology would take between 200 and 600 years to map the sea floor in high resolution. “We’re now looking at trying to get this done at a relatively high resolution by 2030,” Virmani said. “We’ve all focused on getting a global map of our planet that is accessible by everybody.” The data collected from the project and technologies developed will also be used to support the Seabed 2030 project, a collaborative project between the Nippon Foundation and GEBCO to “produce the definitive map of the world ocean floor by 2030 and make it available to all.”
Tracking signals in Puerto Rico
In the NOAA event, held in the waters off Puerto Rico, three finalist teams had to autonomously detect a chemical or biological signal, and then track it to its source. In this case, the technology was pushing artificial intelligence in systems ability to detect those types of signals. Puerto Rico was chosen as the site for the NOAA challenge after original plans to use the site for the Ocean Discovery challenge were changed due to the devastation from Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017.
Teams that competed for the NOAA Bonus Prize included:
- Tampa Deep Sea Xplorers, from Tampa, Fla. (runner-up).
- Ocean Quest, from San Jose, Calif. (first place), a junior high school team from Valley Christian Schools.
- Bangalore Robotics, from India.
In the Bonus Prize challenge, no single team could meet all of the requirements, organizers said, yet the technologies developed will be very helpful as detection capabilities move forward.
Use cases from both of these challenges include using technology to track objects such as shipwrecks and crashed airplanes, as well as map new environments and look for underwater life forms, as well as environmental changes and tracking.
Teams involved in the challenge have either already commercialized their technologies, or plan to now that the competition is finished. For the organizers, it’s off to the next set of competitions, which includes a challenge to help restore coral reef, and possibly looking at ways to restore the Amazon rainforest or conduct a zero-waste mining XPRIZE.
On June 8 (World Ocean Day), the group will also launch a science fiction ocean anthology featuring 19 original short stories and artwork “set in a future when technology has helped unlock the secrets of the world’s oceans.”