Sea floor exploration X Prize announced

Posted on 16 Dec 2015 by Michael Cruickshank

A new X Prize has been announced which will encourage the development of technologies to explore the ocean floor.

Sponsored by oil extraction company Shell, the new X Prize will give teams to ability to compete for up to $7m in prize money should they fulfill a specific set of criteria.

Officially called the ‘Shell Ocean Discovery X Prize’, the competition will seek to advance technologies for rapid and unmanned ocean exploration.

“Our oceans cover two-thirds of our planet’s surface and are a crucial global source of food, energy, economic security, and even the air we breathe, yet 95% of the deep sea remains a mystery to us,” said Dr Peter H Diamandis, chairman and CEO of X Prize.

“In fact, we have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of our own seafloor.”

Specifically, teams competing in the new X Prize will have to build a vehicle or device which can map the sea floor at a depth of up to 4,000m.

The completion will be run over three years, and will conclude in 2018. It allows for nine months for team registration, 12 months for ‘solution development’ and another 18 months to complete two rounds of testing before teams are judged by an panel of experts.

Within each round, teams must complete a number of tasks including making a bathymetric map, producing high-resolution images of a specific object, and identifying archaeological, biological or geological features on the sea floor.

As part of the $7m total prize pool, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is offering a $1m bonus prize to teams that demonstrate a technology that uses biological and chemical signals to find specific objects.

Questions over Shell’s motivation

With the prize being predominantly funded by Shell, its motives would appear to be somewhat less than altruistic.

As a company which has significant investment in offshore oil extraction, any technologies which enable the more effective exploration of the sea floor will also help it identity and exploit oil deposits.

Given recent high profile incidents involving oil spills, as well as new global agreements to bolster renewable power, it will be interesting to see if this prize receives the same positive response as those in the past.