MONACO — The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE announced its winner today here: GEBCO-NF Alumni. The goal of the international competition is to accelerate the development of unmanned and autonomous systems and sensors for deep-sea exploration. The XPRIZE organization announced a total of five awards and $7 million, including a $4 million winner and $1 million runner-up for the grand prize.
The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE was accompanied by a $1 million Bonus Prize for the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) challenge, which required competitors to trace a biological or chemical signal back to its source.
“The intent of the bonus prize is that there’s a single winner, but there wasn’t one team that managed to achieve everything,” said Dr. Jyotika Virmani, executive director of planet and environment at XPRIZE and the executive director of the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE. “The judging panel divided the prize to a winner and a runner-up.”
“Overall, it was a very challenging competition, truly audacious,” Virmani told The Robot Report. “Back when we launched in 2015, there were some experts who said we had set the bar too high for what we were asking in that time frame. Now, they realize that we did manage to do this.”
“I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved collectively,” she said. “The innovators in the teams have truly pushed the field of maritime robotics forward.”
“The people in the teams come from a variety of backgrounds,” said Virmani. “Some came from universities, and others from private companies.”
“Among the semifinalists and bonus prize winners was a team from Puerto Rico and one from the hackerspace movement,” she said. “They entered other, smaller robotics competitions to help fund their XPRIZE entry.”
“Of the five teams that came to Greece to compete for the grand prize, one included a former financier from London who had retired to Switzerland and decided to enter,” said Virmani. The teams tested their technology in Puerto Rico before the final round in southern Greece.
In addition to the winning team, GEBCO-NF Alumni, the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE finalist teams included ARGGONAUTS Fraunhofer IOSB from Germany, Team CFIS from Switzerland,Team Kuroshio from Japan, and Team Tao from the U.K.
GEBCO stands for “General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans” and is partnered with The Nippon Foundation on Seabed 2030. Rochelle Wigley and Yulia Zarayskaya led the 14-nation team, which integrated existing technologies and ocean-mapping experience in a robust and low-cost unmanned surface vessel, the SeaKIT. The team also created a cloud-based data processing system that allows for rapid seabed visualization.
Team Kuroshio was the runner-up. Led by Takeshi Nakatani, it integrated partner technologies to create a surface vessel and software platform that can operate with different autonomous underwater vessels.
“The judges thought Team Tao should receive special recognition for their innovation,” she said. “While they didn’t meet the criteria, their approach was so amazing, they’re getting a special $200,000 Moonshot Award.”
The NOAA finalist teams included Bangalore Robotics from India; Ocean Quest from San Jose, Calif.; and Tampa Deep Sea Xplorers from Tampa, Fla. Ocean Quest won $800,000, and Tampa Deep Sea Xplorers won $200,000 as the runner-up.
“One bonus prize team was a junior high school and high school team, reflecting the focus on science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics [STEAM] at the Valley Christian Schools in Northern California,” Virmani said. It’s the youngest XPRIZE team ever.”
Evaluating the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE finalists
“This was more straightforward than some XPRIZE competitions — we just set out the goals, not the approach,” explained Virmani. “The winning team had to map 250 square kilometers [155.3 sq. mi.] at depths of 4,000 meters [2.4 mi.] at 5-meter [6-ft.] or higher resolution within 24 hours, plus capture at least 10 images from the deep sea. They all had to be unmanned or autonomous systems.”
The final challenge occurred 15 nautical miles from the control center in Kalamata, Greece. “The teams had the capability to shift course, shift operations, or move faster, but you can’t control the weather,” Virmani said.
“They did all of this and more,” she added. “I was in the control room, and a number of teams took the approach of sending out an unmanned surface vessel, deploying an underwater device from it, and recovering it. Docking two pieces of equipment on land is hard enough, but they did it flawlessly.”
The high-resolution baseline maps against which the team maps were judged were provided by Ocean Infinity and Fugro, while Esri, a global leader in geographic information system (GIS) software and geodatabase management, donated its award-winning ArcGIS Online platform for the teams and judges to use.
A new frontier
“We’ve signed an MOU [memorandum of understanding] with the Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project,” Virmani said. “The time for mapping the entire seafloor was once estimated at 200 to 600 years, but now, it’s by 2030. It’s a huge global effort.”
“A huge component of that is the need for these technologies that can cover a vast area that’s super hard to get to,” she noted. “There are high pressures, and it’s 4km [2.48 mi.] deep. Such mapping has traditionally been done with ships, but one with a full crew complement can cost $100,000 per day. If you have to sail 10 days to get to the site, you’ve dropped $1 million before you’ve done any mapping.”
“And it’s not just the hardware, although being able to send out multiple sensors helps,” said Virmani. “Data processing used to take days, but we gave teams 48 hours to do it.”
Maritime applications to get under way
“There are lots of applications for maritime robotics, which will really change the whole way we approach and operate in the oceans,” she asserted. “Some people are using the analogy of space exploration for underwater drones.”
“Beyond deep-sea mapping, this technology is quite versatile,” Virmani said. “At least 25 patents are coming out of this competition. One team’s [uncrewed] surface vehicle crossed the North Sea and brought oysters to Belgium and beer back to the U.K.” Drone inspections could expand for ships, ports, and the energy industry.
“When you combine the autonomy and unmanned technology developed for the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE with technology for the NOAA Bonus XPRIZE that could track chemical and biological signals back to the source, you could combine smart sniffers and detectors with robots launched from the coastline,” she said. “In the future, you could have robots that could go out and do search and rescue if a plane or ship goes down.”
“It would also be useful for searching out new life — with environmental DNA or eDNA, you could detect what swam through the water column and find invasive species or track other organisms, such as endangered turtles,” she said. “We could better monitor sea life or manage fisheries. The next decade will be amazing for the uses of this technology.”
Competition drives innovation, inspiration
As with all XPRIZE contests, the goals of the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE included accelerating technology development and inspiring future scientists and the general public.
“This competition is about discovering a new planet — our own. There’s new life, archaeological discoveries, and more waiting to be found,” Virmani said. “Arthur C. Clarke said, ‘How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean.'”
As part of the drive to inspire young engineers, an anthology of 19 short science-fiction stories with contributors from all seven continents (including Antarctica) will be launched on World Oceans Day on June 8.
XPRIZE also has an open call for projects for the $10 million ANA Avatar XPRIZE, whose goal is to develop systems that will “transport a human’s sense, actions, and presence to a location in real time.”