Mapping the seafloor with robots by 2030


While nearly all the land on Earth is mapped out, the oceans are a different story. Somewhat surprisingly, 80 percent of the underwater world is unmapped. Now, a fleet of autonomous sea robots is set to change that.

The $7 million Ocean Discovery XPrize was recently awarded to teams that will map the seafloor using these robots. The groups plan to create a comprehensive map of the oceans as soon as 2030. At the same time, the vehicles will collect and map chemical signals that may help unlock the secrets of the ecosystem below the waves.

Teamwork Makes the Maps

Due to the enormous nature of the project, multiple teams will split the task to map the oceans. A $4 million first prize is going to the crew behind the autonomous vessel SeaKIT. United States-based GEBCO-NF Alumni developed the winning system and beat out several other teams to claim the prize.

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In the effort, an uncrewed surface vessel carries SeaKIT to a location where it dives into the deep sea. There, it uses sonar to determine how deep the water is and maps the seabed with a cloud-based system. During a test run in Kalamata, Greece, the technology produced a 250 square kilometer map within 48 hours and also captured images of the ocean floor.

Other entrants who designed more innovations split the remainder of the $7 million.

Furthermore, a team of high school students bearing the name Ocean Quest captured a $1 million bonus prize. Their vessel is designed to detect a chemical signal and track it back to an origin. Researchers believe this tech could be used to follow specific fish populations or re-trace the introduction of invasive species.

“The World’s Largest Museum”

From new animal species and undiscovered materials to ancient shipwrecks and lost treasure, the ocean floor is a vast collection of mystery. According to Jyotika Virmani, director of the XPrize, “The deep sea is the world’s largest museum, and we don’t have access to it right now.”

The oceans are second only to space in terms of conditions that make it difficult to explore. However, some scientists argue the watery depths may be even more challenging. Despite this, having a complete map of the oceans would make exploring the seafloor far easier. Not only would researchers be able to prepare for certain underwater terrains, but they could also spot areas of interest without ever sending a submarine down.

Once the robots fully map the ocean floor, the potential for discoveries is unlimited. While no one knows for sure what scientists will uncover, the only way to find out is to start exploring. Seafloor maps will help facilitate the process.

It will be at least another decade before the uncrewed vessels finish the job. However, the wait time is far shorter than it would be if humans were doing the work. Autonomous robots will be able to map around the clock regardless of weather conditions. For now, researchers will have to be patient and grateful they aren’t the ones doing the mapping.