A four-year competition to help unravel the mysteries of the deep sea has drawn to a close, with the international team behind a new kind of unmanned surface vessel taking top honors. The Shell Ocean Discovery XPrize drew plenty of interesting ideas in its bid to inspire new solutions for mapping the world's oceans, but it was team GEBCO-NF that triumphed, with its vehicle designed to autonomously survey the seafloor over long periods of time.

"We have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of our own seafloor," said XPrize CEO Peter Diamandis when launching the Shell Ocean Discovery XPrize in 2015.

According to executive director of the competition Jyotika Virmani, around 80 percent of the world's oceans remain unmapped today. The idea behind the competition was to encourage new technological solutions that help us gain a clearer picture of what lies beneath the surface. This in turn could lead to the discovery of new marine species, further our understanding of underwater resources as well as the ocean's geological features.

The GEBCO-NF team itself, which includes hydrographers, geologists and other experts from 14 different countries, says the vehicle, multi-beam sonars, remote control systems and cloud-based processing making up its AUV-USV concept are largely based on existing technology and don't appear overly transformative on their own. Rather, it is the interface between them that is claimed to present a step forward for this kind of technology.

The team's low-cost unmanned surface vessel, dubbed the SeaKIT, is designed to map the seafloor over long periods of time, in all kinds of environments, without human intervention. It underwent a bout of field testing in Greece alongside nine other finalists' solutions. Throughout, the various technologies were put to the test mapping 250 sq km (96.5 sq mi) of ocean seafloor at a 5-m (16.4-ft) horizontal resolution or higher.

Following a review of this field data by an independent panel of judges, the GEBCO-NF team was awarded the US$4-million grand prize. Japan's Kuroshio team earned $1 million as runner up for its solution consisting of a surface vessel and software platform for communication with underwater exploration robots.

Following the competition, XPrize has also announced a partnership with Seabed 2030, an initiative to collate all available bathymetric data to build a definitive map of Earth's ocean floor by the year 2030.

Source: XPrize

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