XPRIZE Launches $7 Million Ocean Discovery Challenge


Attention, ocean explorers: the latest XPRIZE is for you. The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE is a competition designed to speed up the development of ocean exploration technology. The XPRIZE Foundation is offering a combined total of $7 million in prize money for teams that can successfully complete a number of tough challenges.

The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE is the third event in XPRIZE’s 10-year Ocean Initiative, which aims to address critical ocean issues and make the oceans healthy, valued, and understood. Previous challenges focused on ocean health through oil-spill cleanup and measuring ocean acidification. This new challenge will tackle the understanding element of the mission. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is putting up $1 million of the prize. The remaining $6 million comes from Shell Oil, which, it should be noted, is on the hook for huge fines due to its role in multiple oil spills.  

Oceanographer Jyotika Virmani is the senior director of the Ocean Discovery XPRIZE. She’s hopeful that the competition will inspire public and scientific interest in the water that covers more than 70 percent of our planet. “Ninety-five percent of the ocean is unexplored,” she told mental_floss. “We’ve got better maps of the surface of Mars than we’ve got of our own seafloor.”

The competition runs a little longer than three years: nine months for team registration, a year for concept development, and 18 months for two rounds of testing and judging by a panel of experts.

“This is a very audacious but achievable XPRIZE,” Virmani says. Tasks will include making a map of the seafloor; spotting archeological, biological, or geological features; and creating high-resolution images of a specific submerged object.

There will be two rounds of seafloor mapping: one at 2000 meters (about 1.2 miles down) and one at 4000 meters (about 2.5 miles). Virmani anticipates some technical difficulties. “The pressures that they will face at those depths are crushing,” she told us. “Down at 4000 meters, it’s 400 times our atmospheric pressure that we have on the surface here.”

NOAA's $1 million will go to any team that can prove their technology’s ability to “sniff out” objects via chemical or biological traces.

“I’m really excited about the discovery aspect of [this competition],” Virmani said. “Every time we go down into the deep ocean we discover something. There are an estimated 3 million shipwrecks on the seafloor right now. There’s a Caribbean sponge that contains a compound used in AIDS treatments. There are treatments for cancers and Alzheimer’s disease. Who knows what else is down there?”

Interested? Get your team together and sign up at oceandiscovery.xprize.org