$7 million XPrize for robots to explore the deepest sea

The X Prize foundation is offering $7 million in prizes to teams whose robots can reach and map the deepest, darkest ocean, which has barely been explored.

Mike Blake/Reuters
Peter H. Diamandis M.D., chairman and CEO of X Prize, talks about the future during the Wall Street Journal Digital Live conference at the Montage hotel in Laguna Beach, Calif. in October.

Oceans cover more than two-thirds of our planet, yet we know relatively little about them. In fact, points out the X Prize Foundation, we know more about the surface of Mars than about the depths of our own planet.

This is why on Monday the foundation that aims to incentivize technological innovation around the globe launched a three-year challenge to teams that can produce robots that will map the seafloor, and to those that can detect life in deepest reaches of the sea.

These technologies could revolutionize deep-sea exploration, which has been limited, the X Prize explains, by the high cost and extreme physical challenges associated with the deep ocean, where explorers would have to contend with frigid temperatures, no light whatsoever, and water pressure that’s “the equivalent of one person trying to support 50 jumbo jets,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The foundation is offering $7 million in prizes to teams whose robots can withstand these challenges to quickly, affordably, and safely map the ocean floor so human beings can begin to understand what is happening deep below the sea.

“The answers to some of humanity's oldest questions, or the cures to our most deadly diseases, could be waiting to be discovered,” says a motivational narrator in a short video announcing the prize, which is mostly backed by Royal Dutch Shell, with $1 million donated by NOAA for teams that can build sensors that can detect life or other objects deep underwater.

“In all of our centuries of exploring, we’ve barely scratched the surface of one of the most fascinating places in the universe,” the video narrator says. A place that feeds more than 2 billion people and produces half of our oxygen, according to the X Prize Foundation, which counts luminaries such as James Cameron, Arianna Huffington, and Elon Musk among its board members.

The competition will go through two rounds over 3 years, including a 9-month submission process.

Each test round – one at 1.2 miles deep, the other at nearly 2.5 miles deep – will require autonomous robots to launch into the water from shore or air and quickly produce a high-resolution map of the ocean floor.

The robots will also need to be able to take images of life deep in the sea, and to identify archeological, biological, or geological features along the ocean floor. The team with the quickest and most efficient robot will receive a $4 million prize. The second place winner will get $1 million, and another $1 million will be split among the top 10 teams from the first round.

NOAA’s bonus $1 million prize will go to a team that can build chemical or biological sensors that can detect anomalies in the water that could point to the presence of features such as deep-sea coral or hydrothermal vents.

The X Prize Foundation, perhaps best known for its space-travel competition, started focusing on the oceans in 2010 with the launch of a $1.4 million competition to improve ocean cleanup after oil spills. In 2013, it launched a $2 million prize for sensors that could monitor how carbon dioxide emissions affect ocean acidification.

The partnership with Shell is part of the foundation’s 10-year focus on oceans, which includes five multimillion-dollar prizes to be doled out by 2020 for marine research.

"X Prize has a long history of tackling grand challenges, but also inspiring new opportunities," explained Paul Bunje, who manages the foundation’s prizes, in a recent podcast. "And the oceans are smack-dab in the middle of this."

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