Deep Sea Exploration is About To Be Sexy Again Thanks to Improved Robots

The crushing deep is the new black thanks to substantial cash rewards.

NOAA Ocean Explorer / Flickr

Like a sweater-wearing Frenchman, the depths of the ocean are dark and attractive. But they don’t capture our attention as they did in the heyday of Jacques Cousteau. This isn’t because we’ve seen it all — maybe 95 percent of the ocean floor still remains unexplored today — so much as it is because we’ve seen so little new over the last few decade.

But since the discovery of the Titanic’s final resting place in 1985, no undersea mission has really captivated the public imagination. Fortunately, that’s all going to change. XPRIZE has just announced the $7 million Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, to be awarded in 2018 to teams that can build better robots for deep sea exploration. The competition will involve a series of tests, including mapping 250 kilometers of seafloor in high resolution in just 15 hours. The bots will have to be launched from shore or by air, which will save millions on future ocean exploration, since the operation of research vessels will no longer be required. The prize pot includes a bonus $1 million for the team that can generate advanced sensors that will sniff out certain chemical and biological materials — like hydrothermal vents, for example.

It’s hard to say what mysteries remain, but they are sure to be awe inspiring and world changing. Here are some future discoveries that we’ll be waiting to hear about.

Buried Treasure

There are 3,000,000 shipwrecks under the ocean. Imagine all that booty. It’s not just coins and crystal treasures — there’s human history down there, and it’s just waiting for a little bot to come by and swim the nooks and crannies. Imagine a virtual reality program where you could be there in real time. It’s a dream come true for any pirate-at-heart. Yarr.

Weird Sea Creatures

It seems every days there’s another photo set of newly discovered denizens of the deep. With most of the discoveries still yet to be found, one can only assume that the creatures are going to get weirder and more perplexing. What could possibly be weirder than an anglerfish, that beast that lures its prey with a light affixed to an antennae in the pitch-black deep? I wish I knew, but you can bet I’ll stick around to find out.

Alien Ecosystems

Hydrothermal vents exist at the bottom of the ocean thanks to underwater volcanoes. They’re too deep to allow for photosynthesis the process by which all shallow water and land-bound species rely on for energy. And yet, diverse communities of life live down there, feeding on a totally different chemical energy source. It’s the closest analogy we have here on Earth to how life might form on a planet with different conditions from our own. If life can pop up on this planet in two very different and disconnected ways, it can’t be all that rare. There are more clues to the big world out there if we look to the big world down there.

The great news is that lots of deep sea research organizations already have amazing public outreach, and often live-stream their dives. It’s about time we started paying attention.

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