The unexplored frontier: the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE for mapping the sea floor

An image to illustrate the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE for mapping the sea floor.

The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE is a global competition which challenges teams to create technology solutions to map the sea floor in high resolution.

We attended the UN’s AI for Good Global Summit and spoke to Dr. Jyotika Virmani, who is leading the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE about how Artificial Intelligence is being used to autonomously map the sea floor in high resolution and why this is important for sustainable development.

Why was the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE launched?

The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE was launched at the end of 2015. It is a three-year competition to develop technology to map the sea floor in very high resolution, very quickly, and a lot more cost effectively than can be done today. Prior to this, the time estimate for a global map of the sea floor at a high resolution was between 200 and 600 years, but we are aiming to do this by 2030.

This is a US$7 million competition; we have teams from all over the world competing on this. Within that $7 million is a $1 million bonus prize from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is a US federal government agency. The bonus prize is for pioneering technology to detect a biological or chemical signal underwater, and autonomously track it to the source.

We are not only driving the discovery of ways to improve the speed and resolution of ocean mapping, but also unmanned, autonomous mapping. One of the reasons why our sea floor has not been mapped to a high resolution is because it is very expensive to do so. It requires taking a ship out with a team of people, and the estimated cost was over $3 billion to map the full sea floor. In order to make the shift to a more efficient and higher-resolution seafloor map, we are incentivising the development of autonomous robotic technology and Artificial Intelligence to enable this.

What is the importance of oceanography for sustainable resource development?

XPRIZE has an overarching vision for a healthy, valued and understood ocean. The reason that those words are in that order is because in order to make something healthy, you must value it. In order to value the ocean, you need to understand it. One of the initial ways of understanding anything is to map it. For example, when you land in a city the first thing you do is determine where you are on the map.

Mapping the ocean is thus a fundamental step in understanding it. The Sustainable Development Goal 14, to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development is geared towards making the ocean healthy and protecting marine life. The UN has prioritised the ocean by declaring that 2021 to 2030 is the decade of ocean science, where mapping the ocean is one of the major goals.

What are the technical challenges associated with mapping the sea floor at high resolution?

The technical challenges of mapping the sea floor at a high resolution are enormous. It is a very tough environment; a vast, unexplored frontier of the planet. The saltwater is very corrosive to electronics and metal and the crushing pressures of the sea are difficult to work with.

We have incentivised teams to go down to 4000 metre depths, which is the average depth of the entire ocean. At that depth, the atmospheric pressure is 400 times higher than the atmospheric pressure on the ground level. There is also no light and a lack of communication underwater, so the teams are operating in complete darkness. They have had to figure out how to get a signal from the surface to the sea floor to be able to control autonomous devices. The communication must be maintained between the unmanned surface component to the underwater component, so that the device is not lost underwater. The weather is another challenge because the waves and wind can cause problems during operation.

What are your hopes for future research using marine technology?

I would love to see the development of marine technology to map the sea floor by 2030. What we would see for the first time in our lifetime would be amazing; what this planet truly looks like. Currently, the average map of the ocean is only around 1 kilometre but we are pushing to achieve a 5 metre resolution. To be able to experience that level of detail, from finding sea mounts to new marine life is amazing. We are working to overcome other ocean challenges too, for example we have a prize design around coral reef restoration. We recognize that corals are in decline and they are a critical ecosystem of the planet.

We are at a point in the evolution of robotics and Artificial Intelligence technology now where we can access unexplored locations. Beyond this planet, there are other planets with watery environments which some of these technologies could be translated to. There is a lot of potential to explore synergies which arise from this competition.

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