Nearly 95 percent of Earth’s seafloor remains unexplored, but a team of researchers at Virginia Tech aims to uncover some of the mystery.

The $7 Million Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE asks researchers worldwide to expedite the mapping of the ocean floor with unmanned autonomous underwater vehicles that can quickly capture high-resolution maps.

As with other XPRIZE competitions, the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE seeks to catalyze the development of new technology. The result will be new robotics and autonomous technology that can map the deep ocean with higher resolution and at a pace that is orders of magnitude beyond what is currently possible.

“With only 5 percent of the ocean surveyed, it's really hard for us to do things like populate high-fidelity models of the ocean to help us predict climate change,” said Dan Stilwell, professor of electrical and computer engineering and the faculty advisor to the Virginia Tech-based XPRIZE team. “The technology exists, but it is much too slow and very expensive, so the XPRIZE competition is incentivizing the creation of more-effective technology that is dramatically faster and has a much lower cost."

The Virginia DEEP-X team, led by Stilwell’s lab, will compete against 20 other teams from 13 different countries with a team of underwater vehicles called Javelin. These small and low-cost vehicles will cooperate to intelligently survey deep ocean without human intervention.

During competitions, the team will deploy multiple Javelin vehicles that communicate with each other using sound to cooperatively map the seafloor and simultaneously generate bathymetric maps, which show depth of underwater features like topographical maps.

According to Stilwell, the technology and its resulting maps would not only be helpful in predicting climate change, but would also aid in locating natural resources and in search-and-recovery missions, among other potential uses.

A photo of the bright orange 690 AUV, with the Virginia DEEP-X team in the background.
The Virginia DEEP-X team meets with Dan Stilwell, professor of electrical and computer engineering, in the Autonomous Systems and Controls Laboratory. Stilwell leads the team, composed of 21 faculty members and graduate students.

In September 2017, the DEEP-X’s team of Javelin vehicles must dive 2,000 meters underwater and map 100-500 square kilometers of seafloor within 16 hours. By September 2018, the team of Javelins must dive 4,000 meters underwater and map 250-500 square kilometers within 24 hours.

A total of $7 million is available to winning teams throughout the competition. If only one team meets all competition requirements, they will take home all $7 million. An additional $1 million prize is up for grabs by the team that can additionally locate the source of a chemical or biological signal underwater.

Stilwell has high hopes for the growing Virginia DEEP-X team, composed of 21 faculty members and graduate students from the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering.

Marine geotechnologist Mohamed Mekkawy, an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering at Old Dominion University, is also a member of the team.

“Right away, I realized that this was going to be an interdisciplinary project where I would get to work alongside people from different backgrounds on an international competition,” said Peter Scandalis, a master’s candidate from Warrenton, Virginia, majoring in aerospace engineering and one of the four graduate students on the Virginia DEEP-X team. “I wanted to be part of a challenging project where I could help design a vehicle that helps to enlighten all of us about some of the remaining mysteries of Earth.”

Currently, the team is seeking sponsors and working to create a prototype. Starting in spring, the team will test the prototype at sites in Virginia in anticipation of the first round of the competition next September.

Written by Erica Corder

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