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Q&A

New XPRIZE will map the world’s oceans

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After a promising ending to the Paris climate talks, the XPRIZE Foundation is announcing its latest competition today: the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE.

Following in the footsteps of the $10 million Ansari XPRIZE and the ongoing $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE, the new $7 million competition wants to explore the earth’s last frontier to find sources of pollution and make medical discoveries.

In two rounds, 25 teams will test their technologies at two undisclosed locations where the ocean is 2,000 and 4,000 meters deep to explore a 500 square-kilometer-area. The teams are expected to make a map of the seafloor, take a high-resolution photograph of an object specified by XPRIZE, and identify archeological, biological, or geological features with photographs.

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The three-year competition, the foundation’s 12th, is the third of five prizes part of its 10-year Ocean Initiative. The competition officially launches today at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting.

XPRIZE, a 20-year-old nonprofit whose board members include Elon Musk, Arianna Huffington, and Larry Page, tries to solve major global challenges by creating and managing large-scale incentive competitions. To date, more than $30 million in prize money has been awarded, although the six active competitions (including the Ocean Discovery XPRIZE) add up to roughly $90 million.

Ideas spoke with Jyotika Virmani, an expert in oceanic and atmospheric sciences and XPRIZE’s senior director of prize operations, about the competition and the untapped potential of the deep. Below is an edited excerpt.

IDEAS: What’s the importance of this particular XPRIZE in the 10-year Ocean Initiative?

VIRMANI: This prize really addresses the understanding piece. How do we understand what’s going on in the oceans, because without that understanding, it’s very hard to value something, and without valuing something, it’s even harder to really care.

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IDEAS: Why is mapping the deep sea so important?

VIRMANI: Ninety-five percent of the ocean is unexplored. In fact, we have better maps of Mars. Every time we go, we always find something new. For example, we estimate that there are 3 million shipwrecks down at the bottom of the ocean.

IDEAS: What benefit do you see from detecting shipwrecks?

VIRMANI: These shipwrecks provide an insight into human history. The 22 wrecks that were found off the coast of Greece about two months ago were dating from 700 BC to the 16th century. Historians are actually now reevaluating how humans transported goods across the Mediterranean back in the day.

IDEAS: Are these shipwrecks sources of pollution?

VIRMANI: Part of the XPRIZE is a $1 million bonus prize by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to incentivize pioneering technology to develop chemical, biological detection devices, smart sniffers, that can sniff underwater to track chemical and biological signals back to their source. The potential for that is we could look and find shipwrecks that have a chemical signal.

IDEAS: What are some other benefits of mapping the seafloor?

VIRMANI: Medical breakthroughs, for one. There’s a Caribbean sponge that has a compound that is used in AZT, which is a drug that’s used in the treatment of AIDS. And then I know there’s also an investigation using compounded treatment for cancer and Alzheimer’s.

IDEAS: Do you see any potential drawbacks of partnering with Shell in terms of their interests, such as wanting to exploit natural resources that haven’t been discovered yet?

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VIRMANI: Shell and XPRIZE are aligned in their goals to the discovery aspect of this prize, which really is to help the periled oceans through innovation — creating radical breakthroughs that will help to advance our understanding and care of the ocean. . .

The technology can be used for assessing pipeline leaks and things of that nature. In order to find natural resources like oil and gas, you actually need to look beneath the seafloor. That’s something the challenge is not addressing.

IDEAS: You don’t think Shell has a self-interest in sponsoring this prize?

VIRMANI: The judging of this prize is actually from an independent judging panel independent of XPRIZE and any of our sponsors.

IDEAS: Maybe a partner with similar financial means other than a oil and gas company would have been a more appropriate sponsor?

VIRMANI: We all need to be able to see what is on the seafloor, what’s down there. This technology actually will help more people to gain access to the deep. It’s very expensive to go down there, it is limited to very few organizations and entities in this point in time. Oil and gas companies are one of the largest private funders of ocean discovery and science in general. A lot of what we do know comes from some of their funding.

IDEAS: What’s NASA’s interest in the challenge?

VIRMANI: NASA is actively developing technology right now to be able to explore an ocean on Europa, [one of Jupiter’s moons], and so they’re looking at how can they access the deep ocean environment, how can they explore the cold, icy conditions, so they can send these underwater robots out there. That’s exactly what we incentivize: the development of underwater robots.

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IDEAS: What are some of the technical challenges for competitors?

VIRMANI: The technical challenges are the great pressure, the speed we are pushing the innovation to reach, the area that we want to map and also the high-resolution map of the seafloor. Getting down into the depth, it’s very high-pressure, 2,000 meters to 4,000 meters, it’s a watery environment, and you’re sending robots down there.

We’re also not allowing any human intervention in the competition tech area. Teams are going to have to figure out how to communicate with their devices if they choose to, or, make those devices completely smart and autonomous.

IDEAS: What would be the prize’s biggest triumph?

VIRMANI: I would like [this] to be known as an XPRIZE that helped to get 100 percent of the seafloor mapped at five-meter or higher resolution.

IDEAS: And its biggest failure?

VIRMANI: It’s an audacious, yet achievable competition, just like the other XPRIZEs. It is possible we will not have a winner.

IDEAS: How good are nongovernmental initiatives like the XPRIZE in taking on audacious goals like mapping the ocean compared to governments and private institutions?

VIRMANI: We do attract people from outside the traditional environments that deal with that particular issue, and they then take on new approaches. . . and they result in truly innovative breakthroughs. These are really meaningful. For examples, the Ansari XPRIZE, awarded in 2004, was a space XPRIZE, to get up to three people up to 100 kilometers into the air. That was purely funded by private entities. Until then, it was only government entities that could go to space. What that triggered was the development of the private spaceflight industry, which is now in excess of $2 billion 10 years later. Through that we have multiple private space flights organizations. Actually, Richard Branson bought the winning technology and turned it into Virgin Galactic it as we know it.

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IDEAS: When you think of big firms, none of their industries are water-related. Do you see the competition leading to the creation of large companies making money in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way from water, in water, or based on water?

VIRMANI: That is one of the core pieces behind the XPRIZE Ocean Initiative. We want simultaneously to understand the ocean, we do want to value it, and part of that value system is not just economic value, but also sustainable value and appreciation of what amazing resource we have in the ocean. And then we wanted to be healthy, so it can continue in a sustainable manner to provide us with those benefits; the ocean right now gives us 50 percent of the oxygen that we breathe and it provides food to billions of people on this planet.

IDEAS: Does the competition have any other goals?

VIRMANI: We want to inspire the public. And by making people interested in what’s there, it does make them care and value that environment. It does make them want to preserve it more. We want to help create an ocean that is healthy, valued and understood.

Only three people have gone down to the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean, so it’s really out of reach for many of us, and it would be wonderful to see the new world that exists down there.

XPRIZE will launch two more ocean-based prizes by 2020. The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE will be announced at a live-streamed press conference in San Francisco today at 3:30 EST (12:30 PST). Watch a video about the competition below.


Benjamin Bathke is a multimedia journalist and a journalism fellow with the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminBathke.