• Sun. Nov 28th, 2021

Electric robots are mapping the seafloor, Earth’s last frontier


Oct 27, 2021

(CNN Business) – Humans have explored the mountains, jungles, and deserts of Earth for centuries. But despite covering more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, the ocean remains practically a mystery. In fact, we know more about the surface of mars that of the seabed; barely more than twenty% of the ocean floor.

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 in 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 startup called Seatrec, founded by oceanographer Yi Chao, is meeting 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 in Seatrec’s own floating device. It dives a 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.

The Seatrec float uses ocean temperature differences to propel itself.

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 expand 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 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 own cloud platform.

Bedrock Ocean Exploration uses an autonomous electric submarine equipped with sonars, cameras and lasers.

The challenge ahead

Even with the increasing number of technologies accelerating seafloor exploration, completing the map remains a logistical and financial challenge.

This is how they use 3D printing to rescue corals in Hong Kong 4:25

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 US $ 2 million initial financing to increase the production of its energy harvesting system.

But this is just a drop of the capital needed to conduct a full ocean exploration, estimated to be “between US $ 3,000 and US $ 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 own 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.”