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Competition Seeks New Deep-ocean Exploration Technologies

  • George Putic

XPRIZE, a U.S.-based nonprofit foundation for global scientific challenges, and Royal Dutch Shell plc have launched a $7 million competition to spur development of breakthrough ocean-exploring technologies.

The competition calls on international teams to develop unmanned underwater vehicles for affordable exploring and mapping of the ocean floor up to a depth of 4,000 meters.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is offering a $1 million bonus prize for the development of technology to detect underwater chemical and biological signals and the ability to track them to their source.

The leader of the new competition, Jyotika Virmani, noted that 95 percent of the world's oceans are unexplored. "In fact," she said, "we have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of our own ocean floor, and the ocean, of course, covers two-thirds of this planet’s surface.”

Existing vehicles for exploring and mapping the deep sea’s bottom are prohibitively expensive to use, since they have to be launched from a ship and require large supporting crews.

“For this competition, we are asking teams to deploy from the shore, so there’s no vessels, there’s no human intervention in the competition area," Virmani said. "We are also asking teams to be untethered. The devices should not be cabled to a vessel. So we are really pushing for unmanned, underwater robots.”

The teams will have to overcome huge technical obstacles. Neither radio signals nor light can penetrate very far underwater, while with every 10 meters the pressure increases by one atmosphere.

Testing of the new technologies will start in 2018, in two phases. At 2,000 meters, the teams will be required to map at least 100 square kilometers with 5-meter resolution. The second phase will require mapping of 250 square kilometers, 4,000 meters deep.

As in previous XPRIZE competitions, the race is open to anyone in the world, and the teams are responsible for their own funding.

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