Human beings are great explorers. We have set foot on the Moon and put robots on Mars, but there’s a vast, largely uncharted area much closer to home – the bottom of the ocean. In fact, we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the ocean floor.

Image: Shell Ocean Discovery XPrize

A global competition might be about to change all that.

A world of discovery

It might cost billions of dollars, but it’s still a lot easier to explore the surface of the Moon. That’s because, several hundred metres down, the ocean exerts incredible pressure that’s too much for even the sturdiest of marine vessels.

The ocean is also a world of extreme temperatures, and it’s incredibly dark down there.

The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE is a global competition that is challenging teams to explore this unknown world.

A US$7m prize is being offered to teams that can figure out faster, safer and more affordable ways of exploring the deep sea.

There’s also an additional $1m up for grabs, funded by the US scientific agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), for teams that can come up with a breakthrough in chemical and biological sensors.

Deep sea robots

19 teams from around the globe have reached the semi-final of the competition.

Image: Team Arggonauts

They include a team from Germany who have designed a swarm of five autonomous surface and underwater vehicles which can map a large area quickly.

The team say that they have a “brand new technological approach” that deploys the vehicles autonomously to the right depth. Each vehicle produces a map using sonar technology, and those maps are then joined together to produce one big map. The vehicles are also equipped with cameras that can take pictures in pitch black using LED flashlights. The surface vehicles communicate with the deep sea vehicles, and return them to base. You can watch how it works here.

A Japanese team have come up with a fleet of unmanned robotic vehicles whose data will be relayed back to base via satellite. Theirs is a combination of an autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) linked to several autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). The underwater vehicles will survey vast areas of the ocean floor at extremely high speeds.

Image: Team Kuroshio

A team from Duke University plans to use heavy lift aerial drones that drop retrievable diving SONAR pods. Those pods will send data back at regular intervals to specially designed blocks.

Image: Duke University

A French team have taken inspiration from nature and designed micro robotic submarines that mimic the behavior of bees to map and explore the deep ocean. The Marine Bees operate from autonomous surface ships called the “hives”.

$1m bonus prize

The additional $1m prize, funded by the NOAA, is for projects that include technology that can “sniff out” a specified object in the ocean by tracing a biological and chemical signal to its source.

Round 1 has already begun and is expected to finish early next year. It’s a test of technology readiness levels, comprised of site visits to each of the teams who will be judged against 11 key measurement criteria.

Originally, the teams were supposed to showcase their designs in a 2,000m deep, 500 km² test zone off the south coast of Puerto Rico. However, Hurricanes Irma and Maria wrought such devastation that this was no longer possible.

A judging panel will now visit each competing group on their own "home turf", to inspect the technology-readiness of their solutions.

In Round 2, the teams will have the opportunity to demonstrate their technologies in deep-sea, real-world rigorous testing at a yet-to-be announced location.

What might be down there?

Why do we want to map the ocean floor? Partly because we just want to know what’s down there.

But also, in a world where resources are depleting rapidly, the ocean floor could be a valuable new resource. According to a report by the World Economic Forum, the deep seabed is home to a variety of valuable minerals and metals, which lie hidden in underwater ridges, seamounts and sediment to depths of 5,000m.

Image: PharmaSea

In addition, the oceans could become a new source of medicines, such as cancer treatments and antibiotics. The European Union, for example, funded a consortium called PharmaSea to collect and screen biological samples using deep sea sampling equipment, genome scanning, chemical informatics and data-mining.

An enormous task

The competition organizers readily admit that they have set “audacious goals”, but say that the cutting-edge technology that will come out of it will be revolutionary.

“Round 1 testing for the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE takes us a step closer toward accelerating the development of a range of technologies that will give us a better understanding of the mysteries of the deep sea,” said Jyotika Virmani PhD, prize lead and senior director of the XPRIZE Planet and Environment team in a press release.

The prize is expected to be awarded in December 2018, and we could soon know more about one of the Earth’s great mysteries.