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XPRIZE Offers $7M Purse to Unlock Mysteries of the Sea

By Andrew Kornblatt

While the ocean covers roughly 70 percent of our planet’s surface, we currently only have about 5-7 percent of that spectacularly large area mapped in any meaningful way. In fact, we have better maps of the surface of the moon and mars than we do of the ocean floor. XPRIZE, the non-profit foundation whose lofty mission is to “design and manage public competitions” that better mankind, has just launched a new ocean challenge which will likely draw the attention of marine scientists, geologists and hobbyists everywhere.

The three-year global competition is focused on ocean mapping and, with a U.S.$ 7,000,000 prize purse and the illustrious title of “XPRIZE Winner”, the competition is is likely to push the technologies that drive ocean exploration.

“This competition is technically challenging, but it is also very interdisciplinary. It involves underwater robotics, it involves computer science, there is a digital imagery component to it…  We expect a number of different approaches to this,” said Dr. Jyotika Virmani, XPRIZE Prize Lead and Senior Director.

Specifically, participants must complete a series of tasks through devices which must be launched from the shore or the air, and can operate at a depth of up to 4,000 meters. These tasks include making a high-resolution map of the sea-floor, taking high-definition images of specific objects, and identifying key features in a type of “treasure hunt.” There is also a “bonus” $1M challenge for technology that can monitor specific chemical and biological compounds in the water column; an attempt to “sniff out” a specified object in the ocean.

This latest XPRIZE is part of the foundation’s “Ocean Initiative.” The mapping challenge is the third in a series of five multi-million dollar prizes the foundation has promised to launch by 2020 to “address critical ocean challenges and inspire innovation that helps create an ocean that is healthy, valued and understood.” The past two ocean prizes have included Oil Spill Clean-Up and Ocean pH Sensor technologies.

The announcement of the ocean mapping prize came during the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting in San Francisco and is a partnership between XPRIZE, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Shell Oil Company.

“Spurring innovation and creating radical breakthroughs in ocean discovery are what excite us about collaborating with XPRIZE,” said David Schewitz, Shell vice president of geophysics for the Americas. “Shell recognizes the need to leverage the full power of innovation: the capacity for doing things differently and better than before.”

“Collectively, Shell, NOAA and XPRIZE are all aligned in our goals, which is really the discovery of what is down there, what’s in the deep ocean,” explained Dr. Virmani. “We want to help spur unparalleled ocean exploration through innovation and radical breakthroughs to find all the different wonders in the deep sea.”

The three-year competition includes nine months for team registration, which is now open for  anyone, or any team who wants to register.

Paul Bunje PhD, XPRIZE principal and senior scientist, described the contest’s openness in a interview with the Ocean Science Radio as, “anybody can compete from anywhere, we’re totally open. If you think you have a solution, go into it.”

For more information and to register, visit oceandiscovery.xprize.org.