Innovation To Usher In A New Era Of Ocean Exploration

By: Jyotika I. Virmani, Ph.D., Senior Director, XPRIZE


We are fortunate to be living in today’s world. Over the past 150,000 years, we have evolved primarily in a local and linear world where most of our activities happened within a day’s walk. Life was relatively constant. Today, the rapid pace of innovation has changed this. Our world is not linear and local anymore—it is exponential and global. Through innovations in communication, medicine, transport, manufacturing, and entertainment, many of us now have the opportunity to travel, enjoy new experiences, and explore new environments—all while having the luxury of staying in frequent contact with our friends and family. Through increased data and access, we now have more control over our personal environment and can be better global citizens.

Because of our evolutionary programming, our brains are still wired to think locally and linearly—if we cannot access or envision an environment, we tend to think that it is not of great interest. This applies to distant planets as much as it does to our own because approximately 70% of our world still remains out of our reach. The deep sea, hidden beneath a veil of opaque saltwater, has always proved to be a challenge for exploration and discovery and has, therefore, long been thought to be relatively flat and devoid of life. This is far from true. As we use new, emerging, and rapidly evolving technologies to improve our lives on land, we are also poised, finally, to use them to fully explore the depths of our amazing planet.


The power and capabilities we have with the technology that we use is doubling every year. For example, in the 1950s, our cutting-edge data storage capability was 5 MB. Today, personal Terabyte storage capacity is becoming the new norm. The computing technology we have at our fingertips is now greater than the technology used to launch man into space in the 1960s. Similarly, innovation in marine technology is evolving rapidly as exponentially changing technologies—such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and 3D printing—are adapted for use in the marine environment. Innovation is providing us with unprecedented access to the deep sea, removing misconceptions that this is a barren environment. There is much to be discovered in this dark, high-pressure environment.

The first step in any journey of exploration and discovery requires a map. Currently, only 10% of the seafloor has been mapped. It is inevitable that we will find new landforms, some of which may be the size of countries or larger than landforms above the sea. Scientists recently announced the discovery of 3,600 sq. mi of sponge and coral reefs off the coast of South America—a reef the size of the country of Cyprus. Hidden in this underwater kingdom may be numerous medical cures. Search efforts for MH370, the Malaysian Airline that disappeared in 2014, were hampered when equipment hit a previously unknown underwater volcano that was 4,900 ft high—larger than Mt. Vesuvius, which stands at 4,200 ft.

In addition to the technical difficulties presented by the ocean, one of the recognized market failures in mapping the deep sea (or, in fact, in collecting any meaningful and extensive data at scale from the deep sea) has been the expense of operating vessels at sea. To address this, in December 2015, XPRIZE launched the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, a $7 million competition incentivizing teams to develop autonomous underwater robots for highresolution, deep seafloor mapping and high-definition imagery. To address the market failure, the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE is allowing only shore-based and aerial deployments, encouraging innovations in existing deployment techniques and emerging air-sea drone technologies to provide us faster, easier, and cheaper access to remote areas. Innovations in imaging are also being encouraged. How we view an object and capture it for posterity is evolving rapidly as virtual reality, augmented reality, and 3D printing become more prevalent.

In January 2016, a

In January 2016, a "towfish" sonar vehicle used in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 crashed into an underwater volcano. Australian officials issued this 3D sonar image, adding an icon to show the location of the "towfish."

Embedded as an additional component to this XPRIZE is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) $1 Million Bonus Prize to develop pioneering technology that can autonomously track an underwater biological or chemical signal to its source. In the future, such underwater robots could be deployed from shore on search missions to cheaply and quickly find planes and vessels lost at sea and locate hydrothermal vents and biological hotspots.

Registration for this XPRIZE ends on 30 September 2016. Currently, 21 innovative teams from 10 countries around the world are developing a new generation of underwater robots. With this technology, not only will we be able to map the seafloor at a higher resolution than ever before, but it paves the way for thousands of new discoveries, including lost shipwrecks and new life.

There are an estimated three million shipwrecks on the seafloor, and although every year a number of vessels are discovered, less than 10% of them have been found. For example, this year saw the announcement of the discovery of HMS Endeavour, Captain James Cook’s ship. However, still lost at sea are a number of other famous vessels, including Christopher Columbus’ flag ship, the Santa Maria, the U.S. Navy ship USS Indianapolis, and explorer Ernst Shackleton’s Endeavour. Not only are there shipwrecks and treasures to be discovered, but new and alien creatures live in those deep and dark waters. For example, scientists on NOAA’s Okeanus Explorer discovered a new species (possibly a new genus) of octopus at 4,000 m depth and a new species of jelly fish at 3,700 m depth.

The deep sea is, indeed, the last great frontier to be explored on Earth. It is exciting to be living in a time when innovation will allow us to experience a new era of ocean discovery.

Dr. Jyotika Virmani is a senior director for energy and environment at the XPRIZE Foundation and leads the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE and has over a decade of professional experience in oceanography. She has a Ph.D. in Physical Oceanography and an M.S. in Atmospheric Science.

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