XPRIZE Competition Announced To Create High-Resolution Maps Of The Deep Sea Floor

170 XPRIZE Competition Announced To Create High-Resolution Maps Of The Deep Sea Floor
The aim of the competition is to further our understanding of the little explored deep sea. NOAA Ocean Explorer/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Below the surface of the ocean is a world we know relatively little about. While the entire seabed has technically been mapped, we actually have higher resolution plots of Mars, hundreds of millions of kilometers away. The watery veil blocks radar, meaning so far we have only been able to determine the presence of features larger than 5 kilometers (3 miles) across. The newly announced XPRIZE hopes to try and rectify this by offering up millions of dollars in prize money to whoever can map the sea floor in high-resolution using autonomous robots.   

The prize is offered by the XPRIZE Foundation, an organization that sets out to design public competitions to encourage the research and development of technologies that could benefit mankind. This new competition will be the third award from the 10-year XPRIZE Ocean Initiative, with past competitions involving new ways to clean up oil spills and another to monitor ocean acidification. The prize money will be awarded to whichever team completes the challenge by 2018.


“Our oceans cover two-thirds of our planet’s surface and are a crucial global source of food, energy, economic security, and even the air we breathe, yet 95 percent of the deep sea remains a mystery to us,” explains Dr. Peter Diamandis, CEO of XPRIZE. “The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE will address a critical ocean challenge by accelerating innovation to further explore one of our greatest unexplored frontiers.”

There will be two rounds to the deep-sea mapping competition. The first, to be held in 2017, will see teams attempt to map at least 20 percent of an area 500 square kilometers (193 square miles), at a depth of 2,000 meters (6,500 feet), in under 8 hours. If any teams pass this stage, they will then go on to try and create a bathymetric, or ocean floor, map of at least 50 percent of another 500-square-kilometer (193-square-miles) area, but this time 4,000 meters (13,100 feet) down and in 15 hours. The autonomous robots used for the mapping have to be deployed from land or air, and so cannot be controlled using a cable from the surface. The winning team will receive $4 million (£2.6 million), with another $3 million (£2 million) being divvied out for other achievements. 

In addition to the main objectives, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has also added a reward to the prize fund to the team that develops robots that can “sniff out” and trace biological or chemical signals. “The goal of the $1 million [£660,000] NOAA bonus prize is to identify technology that can aid in detecting sources of pollution, enable rapid response to leaks and spills, identify hydrothermal vents and methane seeps, as well as track marine life for scientific research and conservation efforts,” explains David Spinrad, chief scientist at NOAA.

With so little known about the deep sea, it is thought that there is still much to be discovered in the pitch black depths. From new species of animals to potential new treatments for disease, the wealth of what could lie far below the surface is still almost completely untapped. It is hoped that new initiatives like the XPRIZE could help spur on research by creating new, cheap, and easily accessable technology to sample the sea floor with.   


Main image credit: NOAA Ocean Explorer/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

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