An ice wall and the ocean floor in Antarctica’s McMurdo Sound. The latest XPrize calls for new innovations in mapping and illuminating the ocean floor.

NSF/USAP/Steve Clabuesch

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New XPrize challenge seeks next-generation robots to map the ocean floor

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA -- Uncharted volcanoes, unimagined species, unanticipated treatments for disease – scientists have many guesses but little actual data on what lies in the 95% of the ocean that remains unexplored. But now Shell and the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have teamed up to sponsor a $7 million XPrize that they say will hopefully provide some answers by promoting the development of new sensors, robotic submerisbles, and other technologies. The prize was announced today at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting here.

When confronted with the difficulties of space exploration, oceanographers tend to have a snappy retort. “I love to have this conversation with my NASA friends,” said Rick Spinrad, NOAA’s chief scientist, at a press conference accompanying the announcement. Exploring the ocean is harder than space, Spinrad said, due to crushing pressures, a harsh chemical environment, the inability to communicate with radio frequencies, and no light. As a result, not only is the majority of the ocean floor unmapped, but an estimated 60% to 90% of marine species are still unknown to science.

The ocean discovery XPrize, intended to speed up the development of new technologies to illuminate the deep ocean, is actually the third in a series of five ocean-related competitions, part of XPrize’s 10-year ocean initiative. Two earlier prizes focused on oil spill cleanup and ocean health. Like those earlier prizes, the new prize is designed to draw new players into the game of ocean exploration, “democratizing” the ocean.

“The cost of exploration right now is tied in large part to the costs of large research vessels,” said Paul Bunje, a biologist and senior scientist at the XPrize foundation. “There’s not a lot of opportunity for innovation. We’re not tapping into other industries – robotics, space exploration, bioinformatics. That’s one of the reasons for an XPrize.”

The competition will take place in two phases over 3 years. As many as 25 teams may compete in phase one, a test at a depth of 2,000 meters; in round two up to 10 finalists will test their technology at a depth of 4,000 meters. The teams with the highest scores in seafloor mapping and high-definition digital imagery will get a total of $6 million.

The other $1 million is a “NOAA Bonus Prize” to be shared among teams that can successfully detect a feature (either natural or placed on the seafloor by the organizers) using its biological or chemical signature. “Our objective is to characterize the physical, chemical, and biological features of the ocean, gain some understanding of carbon chemistry nutrient chemistry, pollutant chemistry,” Spinrad said. “A lot of that is associated with oxygen minimum zones, hypoxia in the ocean, dead zones. It’s all part of our portfolio of interests.”

The goal isn’t just to get new and improved robotics and better sensors, says Jyotika Virmani, a physical oceanographer and the XPrize lead. There are a lot of ancillary technologies that will be part of the challenge, such as improvements in communication technology or innovations in power sources.

AGU president Margaret Leinen, also the director of Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, noted that this prize “has the opportunity to be a real game-changer for ocean exploration. It was like a present under the Christmas tree to see this announced.”