Underwater swarms and sonar-bombing drones: Meet the deep-sea Xprize finalists

Nine finalists have been announced for the Shell Ocean Discovery Xprize, a three-year competition to map the seafloor using autonomous technology. The teams are now tasked with venturing to the deep and returning images of biological, archaeological, or geological features.

“The inspiration for this competition is that we just simply don’t have a map of our own planet – we have better maps of Mars and the moon,” Jyotika Virmani, prize lead and senior director with XPRIZE’s Energy and Environment Group, told Digital Trends. “At Xprize, we have an Ocean Initiative, which has a vision for a healthy, valued, and understood ocean. We believe that in order to make something healthy, you need to value it. And in order to value it, we have to understand it, and a map is fundamental to understanding — we use maps to orient ourselves with our surroundings.”

Sponsored by Shell — an oil and gas giant with a vested interest in mapping the contours of the deep seafloor — the Ocean Discovery Xprize was launched in December 2015 with the goal to pull back the curtain on the ocean’s depths and reveal its mysteries with a high-resolution map of the ocean floor. Thirty-two teams made up of more than 300 people representing 26 countries signed up to compete. The number was eventually whittled down to 19 semifinalists.

The nine finalists bring unique approaches to the competition. Duke University’s Blue Devil Ocean Engineering team is developing a heavy-lift aerial drone designed to airdrop and retrieve sonar pods. The Texas A&M Ocean Engineering team is working on drone ships and autonomous underwater vehicles to reach remote ocean habitats. And the German Arggonauts team is developing two swarms of robot drones, one for the deep sea and one for the surface.

“All nine finalist teams are incredible,” Virmani said. “They have all advanced our ability to access the deep sea. For example, we see autonomous surface vessels and even an aerial drone, that can carry the subsurface equipment out to sea — this addresses one of the challenges in the competition, which is that there will be no humans in the competition area. For the subsurface component, we are seeing everything from single vehicles to vehicles working together like a swarm. Some move horizontally through the water, others will drop vertically to the seafloor.”

Despite the innovative ideas, there won’t necessarily be a winner come the competition’s end in early 2019. Xprizes are infamously challenging and competitions, like the Google Lunar Xprize, have previously ended without winners.

“There is always a possibility that the challenge is too audacious and teams are simply not able to meet the requirements at this moment in time, however, after further development, they would,” Virmani said. “But even if we stopped the competition now, we have made an impact. The teams that are already working on this competition have already advanced the field of autonomous marine technologies.”

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