XPrize Challenges Researchers to Explore the Great Depths of the Ocean

On the first day of AGU’s 2015 Fall Meeting, X-Prize keynote speakers announced a $7 million prize that challenges competitors to revolutionize underwater exploration and mapping of the deep ocean floor.

X-Prize Announcement of an Ocean Exploration Challenge at AGU. Image Credit: ECO

X-Prize Announcement of an Ocean Exploration Challenge at AGU. Image Credit: ECO

“Exploration has become demonetized and democratized,” declared XPrize representative and founder Peter Diamandis during the XPrize team’s Monday keynote speech at the American Geophysical Union’s 2015 Fall Meeting.

Diamandis went on to explain that exploration of geographically distant or inaccessible regions use to be the purvey of a select few: those with the means or ambition to fund private expeditions. Today, technologies for collection and sharing data allow teams of all sizes and backgrounds to participate in exploration in ways that range from physical expeditions to armchair viewings of locations that may be thousands of miles away. Diamandis was impressed by the way the 20th and 21st centuries have expanded the playing field for who could be an explorer and under what conditions exploration can take place. The latest XPrize challenge seeks to tap into technologies of exploration to encourage research and discovery in one of Earth’s least explored ecosystems: the deep ocean.

XPrize is a nonprofit organization that Diamandis helped to establish, and it operates by offering large cash prizes to individuals or teams that are able to meet a high-level challenge within a set period of time. Diamandis was drawn to the idea of using a competition to further exploration and research by the story of Charles Lindberg and the Spirit of Saint Louis. Lindberg’s famous flight across the Atlantic was in response to a $25,000 prize offered to the first team able to complete the adventure.

After reading this story, Diamandis wondered what other seemingly impossible global challenges could be met through the motivation of a sizeable monetary prize. Since its foundation in 1995, XPrize has offered “grand challenge” prizes ranging in topic from privatization of space flight to ocean acidification and the clean-up of oil spills. The latest prize is intended to spur exploration and monitoring of the deep sea floor.

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XPrize Team Announcement at AGU 2015. Image Credit: ECO

The Shell Ocean Discovery Xprize, as the competition is called, is a three-year contest to map the ocean floor at depths and a resolution never before attained. Funded by Shell, the $6 million prize will be awarded to the first individual or team that is able to create a shore-based, autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) capable of  producing a bathymetric map of 5-meter-or-finer resolution at a depth of 2,000 meters beneath the ocean’s surface.

The AUV also must be able to map a 100-square-kilometer area of the sea floor within an 8-hour time span. This challenge looks to build on existing technologies but improve data quality, speed of collection, and distance that AUVs can travel.

A bonus prize of $1 million is being offered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to an AUV that is additionally able to detect and track chemical or biological signals within the ocean. The winner of this competition, therefore, has the opportunity to win up to $7 million.

The competition was announced by representatives from XPRize, Shell, and NOAA. At a question-and-answer session, audience members asked about the potential for misuse of deep ocean exploration technologies, citing concerns that they could lead to exploitation of these formerly undiscovered regions of the ocean. The panel of XPrize representatives remarked that human activities may be already impacting deep ocean environments and that better seafloor data might be able to help offer a baseline of conditions and track changes that already occur.

Ultimately, whether these explorations lead to the protection or destruction of the deep ocean will rely upon other factors, but the desire and intent of the competition is to inspire wonder and generate knowledge that would ultimately benefit responsible human interactions with the planet. The XPrize challenge is designed mainly to spur innovation, and the broader breakthroughs that these innovations may provide is to be determined by the competitors.

Further information on the Shell Ocean Discovery XPrize and other Grand Challenges can be found on the XPrize website.