95 per cent of the deep sea is still unexplored

XPRIZE to encourage unmanned deep-sea exploration

A new $7m XPRIZE challenge has been launched today which looks to boost development of technology for unmanned deep-sea exploration.

The challenge, scheduled to run for three years, is supported by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which offers a $1m bonus to teams that demonstrate the ability to sniff out an object in the ocean using biological and chemical markers.

“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,” said XPRIZE CEO Peter Diamandis during a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, where the new challenge was announced.

“In fact, we have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of our own seafloor. The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE will address a critical ocean challenge by accelerating innovation to further explore one of our greatest unexplored frontiers.”

Teams will now have nine months to register, after which they will have a year to develop their initial solution. The final 18 months will be dedicated to testing and demonstrations of the new technologies to a panel of experts.

Each testing round will involve a series of tasks, including making a sea floor map, producing high-resolution images of a specific object and identifying archaeological, biological or geological features on the sea floor.

The systems will have to prove they can safely operate at depths of up to 4,000 metres and be deployed from the shore or air.

Sponsored by Shell, the challenge is part of XPRIZE’s ten-year Ocean Initiative - a commitment to launch five multi-million dollar prizes by 2020 to address critical challenges faced by the world’s oceans, as well as advance the understanding of those unique and critical ecosystems.

The best team will receive a $4m Grand Prize. Two teams that will be able to deliver the highest resolution seafloor map will get $1m each. Up to 10 teams that proceed to Round 2 will split a $1m milestone prize purse. Additionally, the $1m NOAA bonus prize will be awarded to the team that can trace a chemical or biological signal to its source.

“The goal of the $1m 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,” said NOAA’s chief scientist Richard Spinrad, who launched the challenge together with Diamandis.

The XPRIZE Foundation, launched in the mid-1990s with the aim to bring about ‘radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity’, has gained global attention with the Ansari Prize, which sought to encourage development of low-cost spaceflight technology. Scale Composites, a company of aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, won the challenge with their SpaceShipOne – a precursor of the sub-orbital tourism spacecraft that is under development by Virgin Galactic.

Since 2007, the foundation also runs a challenge encouraging private entities to develop a lunar rover that would be able to send high-res video from the surface of the Moon.

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