Electric Robots Are Mapping The Seafloor, Earth’s Last Frontier
Humans have explored Earth’s mountains, jungles, and deserts for centuries. But despite covering more than 70% of the earth’s surface, the ocean remains practically a mystery. We know more about the surface of Mars than about the seabed; barely more than 20% of the ocean floor has been mapped.
Obtaining a more complete picture would allow us to navigate with greater safety, create more accurate climate models, lay telecommunications cables, build offshore wind power plants and protect marine species, all within what is known as the “blue economy”, whose value is estimated at the US $ 3 trillion by 2030.
Sensor-equipped underwater robotic vehicles are helping to collect that data faster and cheaper than ever. But many of these vehicles rely on batteries with a limited lifespan and need to return to a ship or shore to recharge, making it difficult to map more remote parts of the sea.
A five-year-old startup called Seatrec, founded by oceanographer Yi Chao is taking up this challenge. While working at NASA, Chao developed a technology to power ocean robots by taking advantage of “the naturally occurring temperature difference” in the sea, he explained to CNN Business.
Greener and cheaper
The energy module can be installed in existing data collection robots or Seatrec’s floating device. It dives one kilometer to examine the chemistry and shape of the seafloor, using sonar to create a map of the surrounding area.
The robot returns to the surface to send its results by satellite.
As the float moves between the coldest and warmest areas of the ocean, the material inside the module melts or solidifies, causing a pressure that, in turn, generates thermal energy and powers the energy generator of the module. robot.
“They are loaded with the sea, so they can extend their life almost indefinitely,” says Chao.
A basic float model usually costs about $ 20,000. Adding the Seatrec power system adds another $ 25,000, Chao said.
But access to free, renewable energy and the ability to stay in the water longer make data collection up to five times cheaper in the long run, according to Chao. According to Chao, the company is manufacturing fewer than 100 devices a year, mainly for marine researchers, but the technology can be easily expanded: Seatrec’s power module can also be installed in existing mapping devices to extend its reach.
Speed up the pace
According to Jamie McMichael-Phillips, director of the Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 project, new technologies that can expand the reach of data collection devices are crucial for mapping the most remote areas of the deep sea.
“One of the big challenges we have is just physics,” McMichael-Phillips said. “Unlike mapping, the Earth’s surface, where we can use a camera or a satellite, in the sea the light does not penetrate through the water. So we are quite limited to using sonar systems.”
The Seabed 2030 project, launched in 2017, has raised awareness of the importance of the seabed and has given researchers and companies a clear goal to work towards: mapping the entire seabed by the end of this decade.
Some companies, like XOCEAN, are studying the ocean from the surface. Another company, Bedrock Ocean Exploration, claims that it can conduct seabed surveys up to 10 times faster than traditional methods using a self-contained electric submarine equipped with sonars, cameras, and lasers; the data is then analyzed on Bedrock’s cloud platform.
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Chao estimates that 3,000 operating Seatrec floats would be needed over the next 10 years to study the entire ocean. The company has raised $ 2 million in seed funding to increase production from its energy harvesting system.
But this is just a drop of the capital needed to conduct a full ocean exploration, estimated at “between $ 3,000 and $ 5,000 million,” according to McMichael-Phillips, “roughly the same order of magnitude as the cost of sending a mission to Mars. “
DiMare de Bedrock believes it is time to start investing in our planet.
“If we want the Earth to remain a place where humans can live,” he said, “we have to be much smarter about what happens in the ocean.”