Culver City-based XPRIZE Foundation offers $7 million for technology to map unexplored ocean expanses

By Melina Watts

Jyotika Virmani, XPRIZE competitions have produced groundbreaking ocean pH sensors Photos courtesy of XPRIZE

Jyotika Virmani, XPRIZE competitions have produced groundbreaking ocean pH sensors
Photos courtesy of XPRIZE

Oceanographers sometimes say wryly that we probably know more about our solar system than we do about the ocean floor, but they aren’t joking.

Dr. Jyotika Virmani, an oceanographer and atmospheric scientist with the Culver City-based XPRIZE Foundation, believes that 95% of what we could learn about deep sea currents, geography, geology, chemistry and biology remains unknown.

Gaps in the sea-floor map, according to the foundation, amount to about 75%.

For those with a National Geographic subscription, film director James Cameron has been the standout in bucking this trend by helping to finance and operate the Deep Sea Challenger, a vessel that took him more than 35,000 feet down into the Mariana Trench — deeper underwater than anyone had gone before.

A member of the XPRIZE Foundation’s board, Cameron is one of the visionaries behind the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE announced Monday. The three-year global competition seeks to enable wider unmanned deep-sea exploration by offering $7 million in prize money for the development of new technology that can create “a multilayer map of the deep sea and identify geologic, biological, and archaeological features of the ocean with no human intervention between system launch and data recovery.”

Founded in the 1990s to incentivize breakthroughs in space travel, the XPRIZE has since expanded to offer multimillion-dollar cash prizes for technological advances in a number of other disciplines, including healthcare, education and ocean science. The hard work to get projects up and running and the necessity to build a team of talent to execute the projects has the potential to “jump start entire industries,” XPRIZE Senior Scientist for Energy & Environment Paul Bunje said last year, during a tour of the facilities in Culver City.

The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, funded with sponsorship by the Royal Dutch Shell oil company, is awarding a $4 million grand prize for the highest-resolution sea floor mapping, with
$1 million for the runner-up,
$1 million divided among up
to 10 other finalists, and a
$1 million National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration bonus prize for tracing chemical and biological signals.

This competition is a part of the XPRIZE’s Ocean Initiative, which aims to launch five multimillion-dollar prizes by 2020 “to address critical ocean challenges and inspire innovation that helps create an ocean that is healthy, valued and understood.”

Virmani enumerates the groups concerns as including ocean acidification, oil spills, plastics pollution and illegal fishing activity (including associated conditions for humans working in the international fishing industry).

“Sustainable fishing, aquaculture, ocean weather — so little is known about that. We have poor sensors, as far as weather goes,” Virmani said.

Past prizes have included technologies to clean up oil spills and to more effectively measure ocean pH levels.  Choosing which areas to put enormous prize incentives behind involved deciding “what will make the biggest impact on an unstoppable path to a healthy, valued and understood ocean,” she said.

The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE involves improving scientists’ ability to detect biological and chemical data.

“Ultimately, breakthrough technology may help to identify whether there was invasive species or track to a sea mount where there is active marine life. As part of this competition, we will have photographs, digital images from devices. Not only do we want to bring images back, we want these devices to be multipurpose, a proxy for other sensors — temperature, salinity, pH measurements,” Virmani said.

The enthusiasm of the XPRIZE Foundation team is contagious, and one can expect that it won’t be long before the technology they’re funding is being used to study ocean-floor ecosystems about which we know almost nothing.

Could this kind of data track the effects of ecological disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or will it be used to look for signs of undiscovered oil deposits under the sea floor — or both?

Will commercial fisheries use it to zero in on catches, or will it inform fishing restrictions in sensitive environments under environmental stressors?

Ultimately, will the new information it provides support more effective policies to protect the health of the oceans?

Virmani talks about the potential for archaeological finds, biological research, more realistic understanding of the impacts of ocean pollution, and a better understanding of ocean currents, ocean chemistry and the bathymetry of the ocean floor itself.

“Without valuing it, it is hard to start treating the ocean with care and respect,” she said.

Find out more about the prize, including how to enter the competition, at