A team of ocean engineers just won $4 million for these robots that map uncharted areas of the sea lightning-fast — and they could change everything we know about the oceans


xprize 2019 sea floor mapping robot

  • A team of scientists who built a pair of robots that can map the sea floor just won a new XPRIZE for ocean engineering.
  • The international team, which hails from 14 countries, mapped an area of the sea floor more than twice the size of Paris in 24 hours, and processed the data in less than two days.
  • A bonus prize of $800,000 was awarded to a team of teenagers from California, XPRIZE’s youngest-ever winners.
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The oceans are Earth’s least explored space.

Blanketing more than two-thirds of the planet, the seas hide clues about questions like “when is the next tsunami?,” “where did that plane crash?,” and even “how high will sea levels rise?”

Today, XPRIZE — the non-profit started by Peter Diamandis that awards multi-million dollar prizes to spur new inventions — awarded $4 million to a team that built a pair of robots to help solve some of those mysteries.

The autonomous vehicles are designed to explore the deepest corners of the sea floor, places fewer than a handful of humans have ever visited. The robots work together to map the bottom of the ocean: One vehicle, named “Hugin,” moves below the waves, while the other, “SeaKIT,” stays on the surface. 

“Our vision for the ocean is a healthy, valued and understood ocean,” Jyotika Virmani, XPRIZE’s executive director of prize operations, told Business Insider. “A map is the most basic level of understanding that we can get to … and we just don’t have that map yet.”

The winning team wants to map the entire sea floor by 2030

The winning team behind the robots is called GEBCO-NF Alumni, and it is spearheaded by a duo of researchers based in New Hampshire and Russia. During the final phase of the XPRIZE competition in Greece, their pair of vehicles successfully mapped an area of the sea 250 square kilometers wide and 4,000 meters below the surface in 24 hours. That’s an area more than twice the size of Paris. 

xprize ocean 2019 testing in kalamata greece .JPG

Creating a good map of the sea floor would help scientists better predict tsunamis, estimate sea-level rise, and assist rescue crews as they hunt for downed planes and ships. 

The team’s winning device is relatively low-cost. The two vessels use satellites and broadband radio to communicate, and they employ sonar to map the sea floor. No humans are required to step foot in the water for the system to work. When the Hugin submarine is ready to return home, it simply parks itself inside the bigger SeaKIT ship.

GEBCO-NF Alumni wants to map the entire sea floor by 2030 using the pair of robotic ocean explorers. It’s an ambitious plan, considering that less than 10% of the world’s oceans have been mapped to date.

To work more quickly, the team uses cloud-based data processing that speeds up the mapping process. That way, instead of waiting two to three weeks for a map to render, the process can be done in days, at a detail level of 5-meter resolution. 

“If you put a DNA sensor on the technology, you could actually even sniff out and figure out the distribution of invasive species,” Virmani said. 

California teenagers created a chemical-sniffing torpedo

In total, the XPRIZE competition gave away $7 million.

In a $1 million bonus prize sponsored by NOAA, $800,000 was awarded to XPRIZE’s youngest-ever winners: a team of junior-high and high-school students from San Jose, California that designed a robot capable of sniffing out biological signals underwater.

The tool created by the young “Ocean Quest” team can autonomously detect biological and chemical signals underwater in six hours. The machine can “smell” things like pollution, methane, and marine life.

This technology could eventually be used to track down lost planes and submarines, but it’s not ready for prime time yet. In tests off the coast of Puerto Rico, the submarine sniffed out an object successfully, but wasn’t able to track it all the way to the source.

“I wish everyone could meet these kids,” Virmani said of the team. “They were up against industry experts and people from universities and people who are much older than them, and the amount that they have done and developed over the course of the last three years, it’s just incredible to see.”

Team-member Sujmira Naroola, who is in the ninth grade, recently told KPIX San Francisco, the fact that we can show other people that we can do it is insane to me.”

xprize Ocean Quest teens

A documentary, “Ocean Quest,” now available on Amazon Prime, traces the team’s path. The kids hail from Valley Christian, a private high school located in Silicon Valley.

“This particular school that the children come from, they actually have experiments on the International Space Station as well,” Virmani said. “It’s a school that really has a very strong robotics and engineering and computer software program.”

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