What Lies on the Ocean Floor? XPRIZE is Paying Big Money to Find Out

Did you know less than 5% of the ocean has been explored?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates there are more than 3 million shipwrecks strewn across the planet’s ocean floors.

Groundbreaking medicines are created as scientists discover new creatures, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Compounds found in a Caribbean sponge are used to fight the AIDS virus. Another creature (bryozoan Bugula nertina) creates a compound that is being tested as a cancer drug. Corals and mollusks are commonly used to make orthopedic and cosmetic surgical implants.

What other secrets lie deep beneath the ocean’s surface? XPRIZE is awarding $7 million to find out. The $7 Million Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE challenges teams across the world to come up with inventive ways for autonomous, fast and high-resolution ocean exploration.

NOAA is also pitching in with a $1 million bonus prize. This prize will award the team who develops technologies to detect the source of chemical and biological signals in the oceans.

The Competition

Teams will face off in two rounds. In each round, teams will launch their device from shore or air. With as little human intervention as possible, their device will need to complete the following tasks:

– Produce a high-resolution bathymetric map.
– Images of a specified object.
– Identify archeological, biological or geological features
– And track a chemical or biological signal to its source (bonus prize)

ocean floor map

The first round will test the devices at 2,000 meters depth. That increases to 4,000 meters in the second round.

The team with the top score wins the $4 million Grand Prize. $1 million will be handed out to second place. And $1 million will be split among the top 10 teams from round 1.

Dr. Jyotika Virmani (Senior Director at XPRIZE) underscores the importance of this competition.

“By increasing our access to the ocean, we will increase our understanding of this wonderful and mysterious world, and by doing so we will realize its true value. The ocean is responsible for 50% of the oxygen we breathe, is the primary driver of our weather, and is a source of food for over 2 billion people. As such, it is a precious resource—and we need to make sure it remains healthy. The advances sparked by the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE will also provide access and transparency in the deep-sea for better management and conservation efforts.”

Deep ocean exploration is hard too

‘Space is hard.’ It’s a phrase we hear all the time surrounding rocket launches. So is deep ocean exploration. There are several issues XPRIZE hopes to tackle with this competition. The biggest? Scalability. Current tech isn’t where it needs to be to operate at large scales. At least, not without compromising in key areas like resolution or power.

Another issue? Cost. XPRIZE estimates the vessels needed to use today’s best autonomous technologies cost up to $60,000/day. There are not a lot of government agencies or academic institutions willing to cough up that kind of money.

XPRIZE’s goal is to figure out solutions to these two problems (and others) quickly. Fast, unmanned exploration of the deep sea could open entire new areas in medicine, resource development and much more.

Do you have an innovative idea for solving this problem? Head on over and sign up.