The numbers are startling: According to even the most generous estimates, more than 80 percent of the world’s oceans are totally unmapped. The average ocean depth is nearly two and a half miles, and oceans cover 70 percent of the planet. Do the maths and, in terms of total volume, 99 percent of Earth’s biosphere is essentially unknown.
We think we’ve explored our planet, but those statistics are sobering. Topographically, we know more about the moon than we do about Earth.
The math is about to get a little brighter, though. The XPRIZE Foundation has announced the winners of an ambitious three-year program to develop safer, faster, and more affordable ways of mapping the ocean floor. The hope is to eventually map out the entirety of the sea floor and its biosphere, opening vast areas for future exploration and potential scientific discoveries.
The competition’s official title is the $7M Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, and Dr. Jyotika Virmani, XPRIZE executive director, acknowledges some skepticism around the motives of an oil and gas company’s funding of the endeavour. Still, she said, industry sponsorship is common in ocean science initiatives. “The entire ocean community—that includes oil and gas companies as well as agencies like NOAA—we’re all working toward a common goal, to generate a map of the sea floor that will be available to everyone,” Virmani said, calling in from the awards venue in Monaco.
The competition has attracted dozens of teams from around the world, including professional design groups, commercial exploration outfits, university labs, and even a few high school teams. Its essential challenge is to develop autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) capable of transmitting high-resolution photographs and generating complex bathymetric maps—an underwater topographic map—at depths of up to 4,000 meters (13,123 feet).
It seems pretty straightforward until you consider that the machines must be capable of working independently in a particularly tech-hostile environment: crushing pressure, total darkness, icy temperatures, curious sharks. The AUVs must also be truly autonomous—launched from shore without boats or crews—and transmit acquired data with no direct human intervention.
Amazingly, several teams pulled it off.
By the end of the three-year competition, more than a dozen teams developed potentially viable technologies for next-generation ocean mapping. The technologies they created are like something out of a sci-fi adventure film—microrobot swarms, biomimetic fishbots, ocean motherships. Five finalist teams were awarded cash prizes during awards ceremonies, held Friday at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco.
The $4 million grand prize was awarded to GEBCO-Nippon Foundation Alumni, a team of ocean scientists from 14 nations. The team’s mapping system uses a combination of uncrewed surface vessels, AUVs, and cloud-based data processing and was the only entry in the competition to fully pass the rigorous field-test finals, held last December off the coast of Greece.
The runner-up prize went to team Kuroshio from Yokosuka, Japan. The Kuroshio mapping system was able to pass most of the final field tests and was lauded in particular for providing a versatile software platform that can work with many different types of AUVs. The judges also gave out a special “Moonshot Award” to Tea Tao from the U.K. for its unique approach—a seafloor mapping system that moves vertically within the water column.
In addition to the main competition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sponsored a $1 million bonus prize for autonomous systems that can effectively detect a single chemical or biological signal underwater, then trace it back to it source. NOAA hopes such technologies can soon be used to sniff out sources of pollution as well as track certain kinds of underwater wildlife.
The $1 million NOAA bonus prize was split between two teams, with $800,000 going to Ocean Quest, a team staffed primarily by junior-high students from San Jose, California. The $200,000 runner-up prize was awarded to Tampa Deep Sea Xplorers from Florida.
To determine the winners, a panel of independent judges assessed each team’s solution over a three-year period that included field testing in the coastal waters of Greece and Puerto Rico. Around $1 million of the total prize pool had been gradually disbursed at milestone intervals when disaster struck. In September of 2017, an early series of tests in Puerto Rico had to be canceled entirely when Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the archipelago.
“It was an awful time,” said Virmani. “We had partners and colleagues in Puerto Rico that we’d been working with for a year, then suddenly no one could get in touch with anyone for weeks.”
Because the semi-finalists could not afford to delay their schedules with the constraints of the competition timeline, XPRIZE had to act quickly. Rather than force the teams to travel to another location, XPRIZE sent judges to each team’s home base and administered a kind of mobile technology readiness test. The initial field of applicants was winnowed to nine finalist teams. XPRIZE organizers later rescheduled two smaller final testing events at the islands.
“We really wanted to get back to Puerto Rico, to work with these colleagues who were now friends,’” Virmani said. “We went back in May of 2018 and did an initial round of testing then went back in January of this year.”
Shining a bright and global light
The disaster in Puerto Rico underlined the urgency of better understanding our oceans, Virmani said. As the climate continues to change, fully comprehending the complexity of the oceans and their impact on weather and other natural phenomena is of crucial importance. Hence: maps.
“At XPRIZE we have a larger ocean initiative, and our vision is a healthy, valued, and understood ocean,” Virmani said. “The words are deliberate because in order to make something healthy you have to value it. In order to value it you have to understand it. And the most fundamental way to understand anything is to map it.”
Photojournalist Brian Skerry has specialized in marine wildlife and underwater environments for more than 40 years. In 2016, he was invited to serve on the XPRIZE science committee, an advisory board of veteran voices in the ocean science community. Skerry said the three-year competition has already made a significant contribution by shining a bright and global light on the importance of exploration.
“We’re at an exciting time where technology has given us this window of opportunity to learn about and protect the oceans,” Skerry said. “The more we can learn, and the faster we learn, the better for all of us.”
XPRIZE also announced a pair of post-competition initiatives at Friday’s awards event. The first is a partnership with Seabed 2030, a collaborative project between the Nippon Foundation and the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) to compile all data into a freely-available World Ocean Map.
The movement is getting literary, too. On World Oceans Day, June 8, XPRIZE will publish a science fiction anthology featuring 19 original short stories set in a future when technology has unlocked the many mysteries of the world’s oceans.
Virmani said the Ocean Discovery project has given her a personal sense of hope and a better understanding of the power of concentrated, collective action.
“When we launched this in December of 2015, I was told by the experts that the goals we’d set were too audacious, the criteria were too tough, that no one could achieve this level of autonomous technology in the time allotted,” she said.
“I’m so proud to say that it can be done and it has been done. That is an indication that when people put their minds to solving a problem, they can even surprise themselves.”