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Embarking on a New Era Of Ocean Exploration

Dr. Jyotika I. Virmani,
Senior Director,
Energy and Environment, XPRIZE Foundation


We are all born with the instinct to explore and learn about our environment. Yet with just over two-thirds of the Earth’s surface covered by water, it is quite remarkable how little we actually know about our planet. Over the thousands of years we have lived here, we have only explored 5 percent of our ocean realm. We do not have bathymetric maps at a high enough resolution to locate geological features such as volcanoes and seamounts, and we do not know how many creatures live in the sea, or even what form many of them take.

This is not surprising. Anyone who works or plays in the sea knows what a challenging environment it is; we cannot see beneath the surface, seawater is corrosive, and the pressures are enormous at depth. This is why we need new breakthrough technologies that can help us usher in a new era of ocean exploration and discovery.

The $7 million Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, launched in December 2015, is a competition challenging innovators from around the world to develop deep-sea robots that will advance our capability for autonomous, fast and high-resolution exploration. The success of this prize will result in technologies with which we can fully explore and map the ocean floor at a high resolution, uncovering our planet’s greatest wonder and allowing us to sustain and protect our underwater resources. These technologies will also enhance our ability to see what is down there by producing high-resolution images of biological, geological and archeological features.

Embedded in this competition is a $1 million bonus prize from NOAA to incentivize the development of underwater “smart sniffers”—technology that could autonomously detect and track an underwater chemical or biological signal to its source, which would assist us in monitoring and protecting marine life, and allow us to quickly and efficiently locate sources of chemical pollutants, or find planes and vessels lost at sea.

Registration for the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE is now open, and teams have until June 30, 2016 to register. The competition will take place over two rounds of progressively difficult challenges, and the winners will be announced at the end of 2018.

In the first round, to take place in 2017, teams will be challenged to map at least 100 sq. km of the seafloor at a depth of 2,000 m in less than 8 hr. In the second round, to take place in 2018, teams will be challenged to map at least 250 sq. km of the seafloor at a depth of 4,000 m in less than 15 hr. In both rounds, teams will be required to produce bathymetric maps at 5-m horizontal resolution, plus a number of high-definition digital images of an archeological, biological or geological feature. No vessels will be used during the testing; deployment and recovery will be from shore (or aerial).

Along with the Wendy Schmidt Oil Clean Up XCHALLENGE and the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE (Sea Technology, October 2013), the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE forms a part of the XPRIZE Ocean Initiative. The XPRIZE Ocean Initiative is a commitment made by XPRIZE to launch five ocean competitions over 10 years, with a vision of creating an unstoppable path to a healthy, valued and understood ocean by 2020.

The ocean is an integral part of our daily lives. In addition to providing us with 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe and food for over 2 billion people, it is the primary driver of our weather and is used to transport 90 percent of the world’s goods. The innovations sparked by the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE will provide unprecedented access to the ocean. Through these technologies, we will improve our understanding of this wonderful and mysterious realm, realize its true value, and ensure it remains healthy.

We invite you to join us in this new age of ocean exploration by forming a team to compete, spreading the word, becoming a resource for teams, or following us and learning about the mysteries of the deep at OceanDiscovery.xprize.org.

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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.