2 Jun 2019

NZ-led team wins competition for $4m ocean mapping

2:55 pm on 2 June 2019

A New Zealand-led team has won a multi-million dollar competition exploring the depths of the ocean.

Vessel used by GEBCO-NF, which has won the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE

The SeaKit Maxlimer during practice for the competition in Greece. Photo: SEA-KIT International

The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE challenges teams to map the sea floor at depths down to four kilometres using unmanned technology.

The $4 million first prize was awarded to GEBCO-NF for the work of its vessel, the SeaKit Maxlimer, which used sonar to determine water depth and a cloud-based data system to produce an ocean map within 48 hours.

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Robin Falconer Photo: Supplied

The team's organising committee chairperson is Robin Falconer, of Waikanae, who coordinated its challenge. Before the finals, he said the 14-nation team was bringing together existing technology that was used for different applications to meet the challenge.

The competition's executive director, Jyotika Virmani, said 80 percent of the world's ocean was not mapped to an acceptable level of accuracy.

"Our vision is that these new technologies will enable the discovery of new ocean species, underwater resources, geological features, and safer methods of exploring the deep sea, while illuminating the mysteries of the deep and discovering what has remained unknown since the dawn of time," she said.

"Through this competition, I think some of those technologies are now ready. Some are more robust than others but with a little more R&D I believe we will have a slew of different approaches, which is the way we've got to do this."

Teams competed to map the largest area of seafloor within 24 hours in waters off the coast of Greece. They had to chart at least 250 square kilometres.

The GEBCO-NF (Nippon Foundation) Alumni team was always a strong favourite to win the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE. Its members all had extensive experience in the relevant fields.

The group triumphed by packaging an existing, state-of-the-art solution with a novel twist.

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Photo: Supplied

So, while its HUGIN autonomous underwater vehicle is an established industry tool for echo-sounding the depths, its uncrewed surface vessel that deployed and recovered the sub was developed specially for the competition.

Dr Rochelle Wigley, the project coordinator for the Alumni, said the prize money would be reinvested into the development of future ocean-mapping initiatives.

"We want to test our system in different environments, in other deep oceans. We're looking to do an off-shore mapping project around the UK in the next six months, and then hopefully do a transatlantic crossing with Sea-Kit within a year," she told the BBC.

Its boat, the Sea-Kit Maxlimer, made headlines in another setting three weeks ago by carrying oysters and beer between Belgium and England - the first ever commercial cargo run across the North Sea by a water-going robot.