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Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE Announces Finalist Round

The GEBCO-NF Alumni team's unmanned surface vessel. Credit: XPRIZE Anders Jorgensen

March 07, 2018      

LOS ANGELES — The XPRIZE Foundation, which designs and manages “incentive competitions to solve humanity’s grand challenges,” today named the finalist teams in the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE. Nine teams out of 19 semifinalists are advancing in the global competition.

Begun in 2015, the ocean XPRIZE’s goal is to spur development of new technologies and new uses for existing technologies to autonomously explore deep water.

The next phase of sea trials for the unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) was to begin last October, but hurricanes Irma and Maria has forced the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE to change its plans.

Team Pisces is participating in the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE.

Team Pisces testing its technologies. Credit: XPRIZE, Fernando Teixeira

The exact location of the testing wouldn’t be revealed to contestants until the last moment so that it would be as novel to them as possible. However, the Muertos Trough was rendered unavailable because of the devastation in Puerto Rico.

“We had intended to do Round 1 of testing in Puerto Rico, where we had a baseline map,” said Dr. Jyotika Virmani, prize lead and senior director of Planet and Environment at XPRIZE. “When we re-established communications with our partners, we instead designed a technology readiness test for mid-November. The judges started with site visits to all the semifinalist teams.”

“After a slight delay, we’re back on track,” she told Robotics Business Review.

Expert evaluations

Over the past few months, independent experts in 11 technological subjects visited each of the semifinalist teams to evaluate system readiness. The panel of judges includes the following experts:

  • Victor Abbott, formerly of the University of Plymouth
  • Aid Alvera-Azcarat, University of Liege
  • Douglas Au, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
  • Catherine Ball, Remote Research Ranges
  • Christina Kellogg, United States Geological Survey
  • David Mearns, Blue Water Recoveries
  • Shah Selbe, National Geographic Emerging Explorer

“Our science advisory board, which has a level of independence from XPRIZE, reached out to the [prospective] judges based on their qualifications to see if they would be available,” explained Virmani. “It’s great to have that international range and diversity of skill sets.”

The judges evaluated the contestants using 11 measurement criteria to ensure that each could meet the operational requirements for rapid, unmanned, and high-resolution ocean mapping and discovery.

Finalists share $1M

The nine finalists will each receive an equal share of the $1 million “milestone prize purse” at the Catch the Next Wave conference in London next week. The grand prize and runner-up prizes for the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE will total $7 million.

“The teams fund themselves; they raise their own capital for the entirety of the competition,” said Virmani. “They can use the milestone money for the second round.”

The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE teams have been preparing a variety of robotics approaches, including combinations of artificial intelligence, aerial drones, and autonomous vehicles.

“We’ve seen some innovative technologies,” Virmani said. “Some are using drone systems, and others are preparing to deploy swarm robots.”

  • ARGGONAUTS (Karlsruhe, Germany) — This team is creating two swarms — one of autonomous catamarans on the ocean surface, and another of deep-sea robots.
  • Blue Devil Ocean Engineering (Durham, N.C.) This Duke University team is working with heavy-lift aerial drones that can drop and retrieve diving sonar pods.
  • CFIS (Arnex-sur-Nyon, Switzerland) — This team is building a fleet of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to map the ocean floor with lasers.
  • GEBCO-NF Alumni (global, U.S.-based) — This 12-nation team is integrating existing technologies and ocean-mapping experience with an innovative unmanned surface vessel.
  • KUROSHIO (Yokosuka, Japan) — This team is integrating technologies owned by Japanese universities, institutes, and companies for a collaborative AUV approach.
  • PISCES (Portugal) — This team is aggregating Portuguese technologies developed at INESC TEC (Porto) and CINTAL (Algarve) to leverage cooperative robotics.
  • Team Tao (Newcastle, U.K.) – This team is developing an autonomous swarm system for rapid surface to deep-ocean exploration.
  • Texas A&M Ocean Engineering (College Station, Texas) — Led by students, this team is using drone ships and AUVs to explore remote ocean habitats.
  • Virginia DEEP-X (Virginia, U.S.) This team is developing small and low-cost underwater vehicles that will operate in coordinated teams.

Round 2 for the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE

In October and November, teams will have to map an area of the sea floor at a depth of 4,000 meters (2.48 miles) with “limited human intervention.”

“That’s deeper than the Grand Canyon!” Virmani remarked. “For Round 2, the testing criteria are more audacious. We’re still working on the location.”

The teams must also identify and image 10 or more archeological, biological, or geological features, but there are no restrictions on what methods they can use.

“Someone could use virtual reality or some other technology no one’s thought of before,” Virmani said.

Team Kuroshio during Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE Round 1

Team Kuroshio during Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE Round 1. Credit: XPRIZE, Woodruff Patrick Laputka

She noted that Google Inc.’s ocean-bottom maps have a 5 km (3.1-mile) resolution, while the contestants must deliver images at a resolution of at least 5 m (16.4 ft.).

Although Ocean Discovery XPRIZE sponsor Shell has an obvious interest in looking for oil, salvage companies, navies, and scientific agencies should also benefit from advances in deep-sea surveying methods.

“At the site to examine, we’ll identify an object or put one down there, and the teams will bring back images,” Virmani noted. “If they find something else, since the ocean is so vast, that would be wonderful.”

“There are 3 million shipwrecks throughout history, so there’s a lot to be discovered,” she added. “We have better maps of Mars and the moon than of our own planet!”

Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE partners, including the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri) and Fugro NV, have provided standardized platforms and support to all the teams. That way, they can share geographic information systems (GIS) maps with the judges.

“We’ll have a high-resolution baseline map from Fugro,” explained Virmani. “The teams will be producing bathymetric maps and using the same Esri ArcGIS Online software.”

Full speed ahead

“Three years seems like a long time to wait, but it’s a really fast timeline,” Virmani said. “It’s incredible the amount of work these teams around the world are doing. We’ve gone from a paper concept a year ago, and here it is in the water. I’m just so impressed with all the contestants.”

The final Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE winners will be announced in the first quarter of 2019. All the teams will have the option of commercializing their developments.

“Not just the winner, but also all the finalists will move on,” said Virmani. “They own their intellectual property, and many have already formed companies. From previous competitions, we see that they continue to iterate on the technology, set up partnerships, and become successful in their own right.”

“We say that from the point of the final award, that’s the start of the field,” she said. “You have a slew of new advancements that have gone through the prototype and test stages for a few years or more already.”

The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE is part of the ongoing Ocean Initiative, which included the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup XCHALLENGE in 2011 and the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE in 2015.

“Our intent is to launch two more,” Virmani said. “We want to be on an unstoppable path to healthy, valued, and understood oceans.”

“It’s really fundamental — to be healthy, the oceans must be valued, and to be valued, they need to be understood,” she said. “Having better maps opens up the world around us, so we can understand where we’re living.”

Editor’s Note: Jim Nash contributed to this article.