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UK Subsea Experts Reach Semi-Finals in Global XPRIZE Competition to Advance Ocean Exploration

01/03/2017

A multi-skilled team of subsea engineering experts representing the UK has advanced to the semi-finals in the $7 million Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, a prestigious 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.

Based in the National Centre for Subsea and Offshore Engineering in Newcastle, Team Tao is the only UK team to make the semi-final and will compete against 21 teams from 13 countries vying for their share of the $7 million prize purse.

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

SMD and CRRC TEC, both subsidiaries of Chinese parent company CRRC Corp Ltd, are the main sponsors behind Team Tao. SMD is the number one independent designer and manufacturer of specialist subsea remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) working in hazardous environments worldwide. CRRC TEC is the world’s largest provider of propulsion and power control systems.

Chris Wilkinson, Tao Team Advisor and Chief Technology Officer at SMD explains: “SMD has a long history of creating subsea technology solutions, our equipment has played a major role in laying over 80% of the world’s physical connections for the internet between continents. Team Tao being the only UK team in the second round of the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE Challenge is a great achievement for them and something we are extremely proud to support."

“The competition is all about finding faster and cheaper ways to create maps for all our oceans’ seabeds, the current estimated cost and time to do this is $3 billion by 2030. 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 CRRC TEC Ltd and is backed by a panel of seven industry and academic advisors. Their 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.

Professor Nick Wright, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation at Newcastle University, said: “Team Tao represents industry and academia working together to solve a global problem. If we can increase awareness and understanding of our oceans there are significant and wide-ranging economic and environmental opportunities from eco-tourism to bio prospecting.”

Teams competing in the semi-final hail from Canada, China, France, Germany, Ghana, India, Japan, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. 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, adds: “It’s fantastic to go through to the next round of the competition. Ultimately our mission is to help kick-start the new ‘ocean economy’ by redirecting the market to use multiple, simple, low value assets which come together to create a complex industry-leading ecosystem survey, offering data that is attainable and relatable to inspire positive change. 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 now move forward to Round 1 testing starting in September 2017, this will aim to reach depths deeper than the Grand Canyon and map an area that is nearly five times the area of Paris.

Qualifying teams will then move on to Round 2 in September 2018 undergoing deep-sea tests challenging the teams to operate their solutions at depths of 4,000m. The winning team will be announced in December 2018.

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.