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Northeast team in XPrize semi-finals

Written by  OE Staff Wednesday, 22 February 2017 03:29

A multi-skilled team of north east-England based subsea engineering experts has made it to the semifinals of Shell's US$7 million Ocean Discovery XPrize.

XPrize is an international competition which aims to create the next generation tools, technologies and techniques for rapid, unmanned ocean exploration and discovery.

Teams are challenged to design and build new ways to map the ocean floor at depths and a resolution never achieved before using advanced deep-sea technologies for autonomous, fast and high-resolution ocean exploration.

Team Tao brings together industry experts from Tyneside-based subsea engineering specialist Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD) and Newcastle University. They are developing an autonomous swarm system for rapid surface to deep ocean exploration.

Based in the National Centre for Subsea and Offshore Engineering in Newcastle, Team Tao is the only UK team to have made the semi-finals. The semi-finals, starting September this year, will see 22 teams from 13 countries deploy their entries to operate at 2000m water depth, racing to map at least 20% of the 500sq km competition area at 5m resolution, identifying and imaging at least five archaeological, biological or geological features at any depth, all within 16 hours. Qualifying teams will then move on to Round 2 in September 2018, undergoing deep-sea tests challenging the teams to operate their solutions at 4000m water depth. The winning team will be announced in December 2018.

Underwater robotics is a core element of the competition, challenging teams to develop deep-sea autonomous underwater robots that have to perform a series of tasks. These tasks include the ability to quickly map the sea-floor at a high-resolution, take high-definition images of biological, geological or archaeological features, and autonomously find the underwater source of a biological or chemical signal.

SMD and CRRCTEC, both subsidiaries of Chinese parent company CRRC, are the main sponsors behind Team Tao. SMD is the number one independent designer and manufacturer of specialist subsea remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and advanced submarine engineering machines worldwide. CRRCTEC is a major provider of propulsion and power control systems.

Chris Wilkinson, Tao Team Advisor and Chief Technology Officer at SMD UK, explains: “The competition is all about finding faster and cheaper ways to create maps for all our oceans’ sea beds. The current estimated cost and time to do this is $3 billion by 2030. The challenge is significant and being part of the competition is very much about taking part in a journey of learning and innovating each step of the way.

“The technologies which will come out of the XPrize will give us the ability to finally discover underwater resources, geological features, new species and safer methods of mapping and exploring the world’s oceans.”

Team Tao operates with a core team of four engineering experts from SMD, Newcastle University and CRRCTEC and is backed by a panel of seven industry and academic advisors.

The team's approach to the Shell Ocean Discovery XPrize involves international collaboration through partnerships with companies in China, the US and France, as well as research and innovation experts at Newcastle University through its Tyne Subsea Centre for subsea and offshore engineering. 

Teams competing in the semi-final hail from Canada, China, France, Germany, Ghana, India, Japan, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa, Switzerland, the UK and US. Groups include university teams of undergraduate and graduate students, non-profits, start-ups and professional scientists and engineers.

Dale Wakeham, Tao Team Leader and Industrial Design Engineer at SMD UK, adds: “Engineering challenges are normally solved with overly complex solutions. At Team Tao we take a minimalist approach which is a departure from the commercial norm of high value complex AUV assets. For us it’s all about discovering, monitoring and learning how to best protect our oceans through the development of rapid sensing big data technology.”

The Shell Ocean Discovery XPrize semi-finalists also have a shot at a $1 million bonus prize established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which will incentivize teams to pioneer underwater sensing technologies that detect biological and chemical signals and trace their source. This will allow the development of rapid emergency response in addition to the discovery and monitoring of new marine life and underwater communities in ways that never existed before.

The competition is part of XPrize's 10-year Ocean Initiative – a commitment made to launch five multi-million dollar prizes by 2020 to address critical ocean challenges and inspire innovation that helps create an ocean that is healthy, valued and understood.

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