Mapping the sea bed

The winners of a $4 million Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE...
11 June 2019

Interview with 

Peter Cowley


There’s an old fact that we know more about space than we do about the bottom of the sea. But there are plans to at least put a dent in that deficit. Seabed 2030 is a plan to map the bottom of the sea, and a team based in the UK have recently won the $4 million Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE for developing a seabed-scanning technology. To understand it, Chris Smith spoke to Naked Scientists tech correspondent and angel investor Peter Cowley...

Peter - They've put together some existing systems in a novel way. It's a prize that was launched about three or four years ago and they won it. It's actually 14 nations but the major part of it, which is the ship itself, was designed here in the UK. What the prize was for was to be able to map the seabed in a much better way, and so this was a combination of a ship and an underwater drone type device.

Chris - How does it work?

Peter - The underwater drone looks a bit like a torpedo, it's self-propelled, it will do up to 4 knots. It's got a variety of different sensors on it including cameras and other devices. But what's novel about it is that it's also got associated with a ship which is also autonomous. So the torpedo will come up to the surface, get onto the ship, which is autonomous as well, charge itself up and then go back down again. So the ship can then act as a base for it and the ship, as I say, is fully autonomous and if necessary could be partially autonomous.

Chris - What measurements are they going to make and how long is this going to take?

Peter - The prize itself was asking for devices to map out the surface of the seabed at up to 4000 metres deep, about 12,000 ft. And the target was for this prize was to have 24 hours to map as much as possible, and they managed to map 278 sq. kilometres in that time. But the idea behind it is to find geological features and they found more than 10 features which haven't been known before. In the Mediterranean this was as well.

Chris - So in other words it's going to look at a subset of the ocean floors, because we must have mapped quite a bit already, haven't we?

Peter - It's only a few percent.

Chris - Really!

Peter - Yeah, yeah.

Chris - And so they'll get this map, what are they going to do with it?

Peter - When they finally do it, there's all kinds of things they can do with it from commercial applications, for instance mining. There's huge amounts of minerals down there on the seabed. They can do forecasts of tsunamis, there's a whole load of ocean current measurements they could do. So the idea is to have a map of the whole world by 2030s, it says, which can then be analysed by, particular by this organisation the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans, which is the overarching body here.

Chris - Of course, the conservationists are quite worried about this undersea exploitation, aren't they? Because there are these wonderful pristine resources down there in huge abundance, these mineral things. And they are relatively accessible to us these days compared with the price now of recovering, for instance, oil in the same way. But at the same time, if we don't know what is down there in terms of geology, we also don't know what's down there in terms of biology and we could, therefore, in the course of going and recovering those minerals be doing untold damage to unique species?

Peter - As you'll see later on this program with an animal I've just seen.

Chris - Say no more.

Peter - Yes, say no more.

Chris - Peter is referring to the fact that Lloyd Peck is coming on and he's got in a box a dinner-plate-sized sea spider!

Peter - Of course that's the point! I met a guy some years ago which was picking up cobalt nodules off the Hawaiian coast and he'd actually put a hundred million pounds in to do this and they were hoovering them up. So yeah, there's clearly going to be an ecological disadvantage but there is also an advantage in being able to find these minerals in places which aren't going to damage the normal above surface land.


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