In 2016, the Shell a global competition sponsored by Royal Dutch Shell plc, announced it would dole out $7 million to the technologies that could demonstrably advance the knowledge of the Earth’s most mysterious frontier: the ocean.
Out of the over 30 international teams that swiftly expressed interest, 19 made it to the semifinals in early 2017, nine to the final round in November 2017, and eventually only five fulfilled the criteria to compete in the grand final that took place at the end of 2018 in the coastal town of Kalamata, Greece.
Last week, the winner was unveiled: The team that showed the best technological chops for remotely and autonomously plumbing the world’s oceans was the, a diverse union of scientists made up of members from 14 different countries, all graduates from the University of New Hampshire’s in ocean bathymetry.
Like the rest of the teams, GEBCO-NF competed in Greece with a combination of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs)—subsea swimming robots that are computer-controlled—and unmanned or autonomous surface vessels (USVs or ASVs respectively), vessels that carry, deploy, and retrieve the AUVs without the intervention of humans.
Drawing on this AUV and USV marriage, the GEBCO-NF team successfully mapped a 278.9-square-kilometer area of seafloor in less than 24 hours (exceeding the 250-square-kilometer standard the judges had set for the same timeframe), produced 10 images of the seabed with a resolution of five meters or higher, and processed and transformed the data into fit-for-use imagery in just two days.
“We developed a surface vessel that can get the AUV out to the mapping site and also act as a communications platform,” says Yulia Zarayskaya, one of GEBCO-NF’s team leaders. (The other team leader, Rochelle Wigley, previously said their surface vessel behaved toward the submersible like a mother on the surface—hence its “mothership” nickname.)
GEBCO-NF’s surface vessel, , is a prototype technology. It’s an 11.75-meter-long, aluminum-hulled vessel that contains a hybrid diesel engine, electrical generators, and a solar panel. It runs on batteries supported from the diesel engines, uses waypoints to navigate, and comes with an impressive array of technologies: acoustic, radio, satellite links and Wi-Fi, as well as CCTV cameras that allow the land-based team to observe 360 degrees around the vessel, an automatic identification system for other vessels in the vicinity to know its position, and a thermal camera.
Designed and built for the team by Hushcraft Ltd, the GEBCO “mothership” is unmanned, not autonomous, meaning that a fully qualified sea captain can command it from shore.
“When we navigate busy shipping channels, human interaction is still the best solution to meet all maritime laws,” says Zarayskaya. “If other vessels come within audible distance, there are always traditional fog horns and a speaker for the land-based personnel to communicate.”
In the beautiful Mediterranean coastal town of Kalamata, GEBCO-NF’s USV showed its competitive spirit by fetching the AUV to the diving site, 15 nautical miles offshore from the town’s port, and forcing it into the ocean with a conveyor belt. The USV had an open stern; the team used a pump to take some water on board to lower the stern, and then turned on the conveyor belt to deploy the robot to the water.
Called , the AUV in question was developed in Norway and evolved from more than 20 years of development. Manufactured by Kongsberg Maritime AS, GEBCO-NF’s AUV is as imposing as its “mother.” Made of syntactic foam and wrapped in carbon fiber, it is 6.9 meters in length and 75 centimeters in diameter, carries cutting edge sensors, and can dive down to 4500 meters (with 6,000-meter-rated versions available).
To win the contest, GEBCO-NF equipped its AUV with a multi-beam echo sounder, a kind of sonar ideal for mapping the seabed, and a side-scan sonar unit, a scanner with the ability to swiftly produce large images of the seafloor. In total, the subsea drone counted seven sonars, useful for making sure the AUV wouldn’t self-destruct while autonomously operating in a cold, dark and high-pressure environment or helping it “understand” its location and surrounding environment.
The judges that were called to select the winner already had in their possession a baseline map—an accurate, high-resolution map of the whole competition area, produced by American seabed exploration company . It was against this map that all competing maps had to be compared.
“All teams did a good job, but GEBCO’s data coverage was head and shoulders above all others as they managed to cover a larger area and down to 4,000-meter depths in the allotted 24 hours,” says the XPRIZE panel of judges. “GEBCO achieved a horizontal resolution of 5 meters and better, a vertical resolution of 0.5 meters and better, and submitted approximately 130 square kilometers at a resolution higher than 5 meters. The sheer volume of data captured and analyses submitted inside the 48-hour time allowed for data processing was impressive.”
What this means is that the XPRIZE judges enjoyed a visual feast of features lying at the ocean bottom of Kalamata, with cliff lines, boulders, and scour marks all clearly visible.
“The bathymetric map of GEBCO could be assessed against the baseline map with good resolution and accuracy, and it was really nice to just ‘navigate’ the data, though there were some horizontal and vertical offsets from the high resolution baseline map dataset,” the judging panel concludes.
But even if the XPRIZE honored the virtuoso consortium of international hydrographers with the $4 million first prize, it also gave way to the future through the. This was awarded to the technology that best detected a chemical signal underwater and autonomously tracked it to its source. (San Jose, California) claimed $800,000 as the winner, and (Florida) took $200,000 as the runner-up.
The astounding part? The Ocean Quest team was made up mostly of junior high school students from the Valley Christian Schools, aged between 14 and 16 years old.
The youngest team in the contest had made it to the main draw’s semifinals, but failed to progress to the final round. This perhaps proved a blessing in disguise according to Stephen Huber, one of the four adult members of Ocean Quest team and the team’s lead engineer and program director of , an organization giving high school students hands-on encounters with inaccessible (for them) areas of scientific study, such as the ocean or space.
Huber says his juvenile team had neither the funds (some of the big AUVs may cost up to $12 million, he says) nor the time and infrastructure to competitively claim the main event. Once they were eliminated from the finals, they focused on creating a low-cost, compact solution that could be carried over anywhere. So they competed with an AUV that cost no more than $15,000, and invested the bulk of their remaining $135,000 capital on their software.
“We worked through the knowns we were given,” says Huber. “We knew that the chemical would be dispersed from the seafloor and that it would move through the water similar to how smoke moves in the air when there is a fire. The chemical would be deeper than where we detected it and we would be able to determine the currents from the given competition area coordinates so we could start downstream and work our way upstream.”
The chemical Huber talks about is a rhodamine dye the XPRIZE organizers released onto the Ponce, Puerto Rico sea floor and then had Ocean Quest and two other teams track it in six hours.
The Ocean Quest team equipped its miniature AUV (15 centimeters in diameter and 1 meter in length) with an off-the-shelf fluorometer—a device for measuring the intensity of fluorescence—and outfitted it with a custom iridium satellite communication system.
Free from the restriction of autonomously deploying the AUV to the diving site (this was not a prerequisite for the NOAA prize), the juniors rode aboard a boat and deployed their AUV by hand over the side of the boat, which went down like a submarine. Once the fluorometer detected the dye, the AUV spiraled up to the surface in an attempt to maintain the position of the source. Soon, it acquired a GPS signal and transmitted the coordinates over satellite back to the team’s mission control.
“We built a very smart algorithm that could actually track these chemicals back to its source,” says Huber. “We—adults—developed the framework of the algorithms and the students put it together. Then, we contracted a freelance software developer who wrote the code in Python, so that students could easily read and manipulate it. Students were the ones that executed and ran the AUV during the competition.”
The future for the world’s oceans seems bright. Both winning teams feel that their innovations will be ocean sustainability’s most powerful ally once they get out there in the field. Predicting storms, managing fish, detecting the sources of oil leaks, locating shipwrecks, assessing water parameters like salinity and temperature—crucial to tackling climate change—are only coming alongside the unlocking of the geological, archaeological, and biological ocean secrets.
For XPRIZE organizers, the technologies that sprang from the contest simply predict that the deep ocean will be friendly territory in 10 years’ time.