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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2018 / March 

Mapping the ocean floor leads Virginia Tech team to earn a slot in $7 million international competition

March 7, 2018

Three men pose with a small, orange autonomous vehicle that looks like a small submarine.
DEEP-X members Stephen Krauss, a graduate student studying electrical engineering; Jack Webster, a graduate student studying ocean engineering; and Dan Stilwell, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Virginia Tech Center for Marine Autonomy and Robotics, ventured to Panama City, Florida for the first round of the competition.

Nineteen teams went in and only nine — including Virginia Tech’s own DEEP-X — came out of the first round of a global competition to build autonomous vehicles that can rapidly map the mostly unknown ocean floor.

The DEEP-X team, led by Dan Stilwell, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Virginia Tech Center for Marine Autonomy and Robotics, has earned a finalist spot in the second and final round of the $7 Million Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE.

The international competition intends to spur the development of cutting-edge autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that can quickly capture high-resolution maps of the ocean floor, the surface of which is less understood than that of Venus or Mars.

By developing technology capable of such ambitious goals, researchers can unlock data that paints a bigger picture of the Earth's climate and the biological life and landscapes deep below the ocean surface.

Stilwell and two Virginia Tech graduate students — Jack Webster, who studies ocean engineering, and Stephen Krauss, who studies electrical engineering — recently concluded the first round of the competition, during which the team had to deploy and test their unmanned underwater vehicle, which they call Javelin, off the coast of Panama City, Florida.

To complete the first round, DEEP-X’s Javelin was required to demonstrate a number of capabilities, including mapping, underwater navigation, seaworthiness, and a separate pressure test to 2,000 meters underwater.

“We successfully completed each item in the test matrix, although we were short on the total area surveyed,” Stilwell said.

Photo of a small, orange autonomous underwater vehicle partially submerged in blue water.
DEEP-X, developed the Javelin AUV for the XPRIZE competition. During the first round, the AUV demonstrated its capabilities off the coast of Panama City, Florida.

For the next round of competition, beginning September 2018, the vehicles must dive 4,000 meters underwater and map 250-500 square kilometers within 24 hours.

The DEEP-X solution uses a team of Javelin AUVs to cooperatively map the deep ocean. The Javelin AUVs are small, at around 300 pounds displacement in water, and low-cost, hovering around $131,000 to produce.

Because it is significantly smaller and lower cost than currently available technology, it is now realistic to consider deploying teams of cooperating AUVs in the deep ocean. Still, the team anticipates “many different layers of difficulty,” Krauss said.

Between the programming required to enable collaboration between the vehicles, the difficulties of deep ocean navigation algorithms, and the time-consuming process of ordering parts and assembling multiple Javelins, the small research team has their work cut out for them.

“There are a lot of uncertainties when you’re deep in the ocean, and we don’t have access to GPS [underwater] so our algorithms have to be very robust to address different problems that we can face,” Krauss said.

By operating in coordinated teams, the vehicles should be capable of collecting data with higher resolution and at a pace that is orders of magnitude beyond what is possible with current technology.

“The Javelin AUV is very inexpensive and very small, yet capable of performing mission-relevant tasks at 4,000-meter depth,” Stilwell said. “Because it costs only $131,000 for us to produce, including bathymetric sonar, we can now realistically consider scenarios where teams of cooperating AUVs are deployed in the deep ocean.”

In doing so, the team would advance the accessibility of ocean-mapping technology, which is typically slow and expensive. The bathymetric data uncovered as a result of further ocean exploration is useful for basic science, as in improving ocean and climate models for further study, and also for commercial uses, such as resource discovery.

“There are a lot of unexplored resources in the ocean and a great deal of biological research that can be done if we have vehicles that can survey the ocean floor,” Krauss said. “Who knows what we can find.”

DEEP-X received initial funding from Virginia Tech and Huntington Ingalls Industries, who also provided hands-on support in Panama City. Marine Sonic Technology provided a sonar altimeter that helps the Javelin avoid obstacles. The team purchased a bathymetric sonar, which creates maps of the seafloor from Ping DSP.

The nine finalist teams will be formally recognized and awarded at Oceanology International’s Catch the Next Wave conference in London on March 15 during a closing keynote by Jyotika Virmani, prize lead and senior director of Planet and Environment at XPRIZE. Each team will receive a portion of $1 million in prize money, out of the total $7 million up for grabs throughout the entire competition.

As DEEP-X prepares for the next round of competition, the team is continuing to seek sponsors. Those interested in learning more about sponsoring the team should contact Dan Stilwell,  

“We are insanely proud of our students’ accomplishments,” Stilwell said. “Despite limited resources, they designed and fielded a new AUV that completely changes the paradigm for deep ocean robotics.”

Written by Erica Corder