Exploring the unknown

Mapping Planet Ocean

Jyotika Virmani and Henry Gilliver, explain how the global movement to map ‘Planet Ocean’ is gathering pace, spurred on by two recent initiatives – the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE and the Nippon Foundation–GEBCO Seabed 2030 project

As technology evolves, so too does our knowledge. For example, satellites now show, with increasingly finer resolution, the surface of the earth. Through the data and images we get from space, we see the beauty of the mountains and valleys, forests and deserts, cities and farmlands, and we believe that we have a good understanding of our home. But 71% of the earth is covered by water – and as Sir Arthur C. Clarke famously said, ‘How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean.’ How well do we really know our planet, when most of it remains a mystery, hidden under about 4 kilometres of seawater?

Inadequate resolution

Portuguese Team PISCES’s autonomous underwater vehicle, DART (Deep water Autonomous Robotic Traveler) floating in a test tank, with reflection. Photo: XPRIZE

You may find a map of the seabed that shows underwater mountains and deep-sea canyons, but the best average resolution, globally, is approximately 1 square kilometre. These coarse resolution maps have been produced by cleverly interpolating a few direct measurements and numerous indirect measurements (through satellites). Currently only about 6% of the seabed has been mapped using high-resolution direct measurement techniques.

Understanding the topography of the seabed is of critical importance – with data needed to predict the path of tsunamis and illuminate the study of tides, wave action, sediment transport, underwater geo-hazards, cable routing, fisheries management and resource exploration, among others. We cannot sustainably manage what we don’t understand.

Sea-floor maps are also vital for the security, safety and economic health of nation states. The ‘Blue Economy’, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), is valued at $1.5 trillion a year and creates the equivalent of 31 million full-time jobs.

But the task of mapping the sea floor at a high resolution provides a number of significant challenges.

Three major challenges

The first major challenge is in the opaque nature of the ocean. Satellites can cover large areas of land, but cannot make direct, high-resolution measurements of the seabed. In order to get accurate bathymetric maps, we need in-situ devices that can operate in corrosive salt water, move through a fluid that provides a high resistance compared to air, work in total darkness under extremely high pressures (1 atmosphere for every 10 metres beneath the surface), and communicate through a medium that does not lend itself to easy communications. Many of the in-situ technologies we have are slow or require considerable power to operate for long periods of time.

A second major challenge is the extent of the area yet to be mapped, which is almost too large to comprehend – almost 360 million square kilometres.

To overcome these first two challenges and reach the remotest parts of the ocean, the technologies used to explore the deep ocean are generally deployed from a vessel, which presents the third major challenge – the cost. Vessels are costly to own or rent, and often require significant staffing, as some human intervention is needed for navigation and support of the deep-sea data collection operations. Although existing technologies developed over the last few decades have given us great insights into the marine realm, they are expensive, not fast enough, and cannot scale up to the task at hand. It is estimated that we will need over $3 billion and a few hundred years in order to map our entire seabed to a 100-metre resolution.

The XPRIZE competition

Team GEBCO-NF Alumni’s autonomous unmanned surface vehicle, SEA-KIT, explores the offshore coastline of Horten, Norway in a field test for the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE. Photo: XPRIZE

The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, a $7 million competition, was designed to accelerate the development of autonomous and rapid underwater technologies to map the sea floor at high resolution and low cost. XPRIZE, a non-profit organization based in Los Angeles, California, is the global leader in designing and implementing innovative competition models to solve the world’s grandest challenges. In addition to addressing the challenge of mapping the deep seabed down to 4-kilometre depths, contestants in this international competition are required to bring back images from the ocean. A $1 million National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) bonus prize has also been offered for innovators to develop pioneering technology that can detect a chemical or biological signal underwater and autonomously track it to its source.

This international competition, launched in December 2015, will conclude in 2019. As the competition approaches the final phase, the field has been whittled down from the initial 32 teams who registered to eight teams who are still competing for the Grand Prize, and five teams competing for the Bonus Prize. The eight Grand Prize teams, with team members from 25 countries, are preparing for the final test of the competition – to map at least 50% of a designated offshore 500-square-kilometre competition area down to 4,000-metre depths, at 5-metre horizontal resolution and 0.5-metre vertical resolution. Teams will have 24 hours in which to collect the data for the map, bring back 10 images from the sea, and find a deep-sea object. These field tests, taking place in November and December in the Mediterranean, off Greece, will determine the winners of the Grand Prize ($4 million first-place prize, $1 million second-place prize). The five Bonus Prize teams will meet in January 2019 for field tests to determine the winners of the $1 million Bonus Prize.

Since the launch of this XPRIZE in late 2015, the maritime community has generally seen an increasing shift towards autonomy – both in ships at sea and in underwater technologies. The XPRIZE competing teams are using remote-controlled surface vessels, autonomous underwater devices, swarm robotics, drones, 3D-printed housing, cutting-edge imaging and sensing technologies, artificial intelligence and advance computing to uncover our oceans. These innovative competition entries are continuing to push the boundaries of autonomous operations at sea, and it is inevitable that many of these emerging technologies will be instrumental in mapping our vast sea floor. One of the monumental impacts from this XPRIZE will be to reduce the timeline of obtaining a high-resolution map of our entire planet from a few hundred years to less than 15 years.

The Seabed 2030 project

One organisation taking a leading role in this process is the Nippon Foundation–GEBCO Seabed 2030 project, which aims to map the entirety of the world’s ocean floor by 2030. The project contributes to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 14 – ‘to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’ – and will also support the UN’s Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. It is clear that the Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 project and the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE are natural partners.

The Nippon Foundation–GEBCO Seabed 2030 project is an international network of leading ocean scientists and ocean mapping experts. Four regional centres have been established, each with responsibility for a region of the world’s ocean. They are based at the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), Germany, covering the Southern Ocean; the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), Wellington, New Zealand, covering the south and west Pacific Ocean; the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, USA, covering the Atlantic and Indian Oceans; and Stockholm University, Sweden, in partnership with the University of New Hampshire, USA, for the North Pacific and Arctic Ocean. The Global Centre, responsible for producing the global map, is based at the UK’s National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.

The use of emerging technologies will play a central role in the Seabed 2030 project. Using current technology, scientists estimate it will take around 350 ship-years to accurately map the ocean deeper than 200 metres. That is, one research ship equipped with a modern multibeam echosounder would take 350 years to complete the task. New technologies will be instrumental in reducing this timescale, which is why the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE is so important for the long-term goals of the Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 project.

Just the start of a journey

The end of the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE will be marked with one team being crowned the winner. However, all the teams will collectively have expanded the technology available to address this grand challenge. This is only the beginning of humanity’s journey to the last undiscovered frontier. Its legacy will live on in the Nippon Foundation–GEBCO Seabed 2030 project, and its aim to map the entirety of the world’s ocean floor by 2030.

Jyotika I. Virmani PhD is Senior Director, Planet and Environment, and Executive Director, Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE. Henry Gilliver is a spokesperson for the Nippon Foundation–GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project.