We Have Better Maps of Mars than of the Ocean Floor. Drones Could Change That

Virginia Tech researchers and a professor at Old Dominion University have teamed up to develop a fleet of underwater drones that they hope will survey the deepest parts of the ocean faster and cheaper.

by Kimberly Pierceall, The Virginian-Pilot / April 25, 2017

(TNS) — Society currently has better maps of the moon, Mars and Venus than of the ocean, says Dan Stilwell with Virginia Tech's marine robotics research. But he and others are attempting to paint a better picture of the sea floor, which may involve dropping drones into Hampton Roads waters.

Virginia Tech researchers and a professor at Old Dominion University have teamed up to develop a fleet of 12 underwater drones costing $125,000 each that they hope will survey the deepest parts of the ocean faster — and cheaper — than anyone has done before.

When might that come in handy, besides to generally explore the relative unknown? The oil and gas industries wouldn't mind knowing more about what lurks below and the military has already sought ways to position sensors on the bottom of the ocean. Stilwell says technology such as what he and his team are developing could also make underwater searches, like the unsuccessful nearly three-year effort to find missing Malaysian Airline flight MH370, more affordable and faster.

What could cost tens of millions of dollars for a single underwater drone, he said would cost his team about $2 million to design and build 12.

The team, Virginia DEEP-X, will compete for up to $7 million as part of the Shell Ocean Discovery XPrize.

The challenge? To dive 4,000 meters underwater, or nearly 2.5 miles, and generate a high-resolution map of nearly 200 square miles (500 square kilometers) of sea floor off Puerto Rico within 24 hours.

The other challenge? To quickly raise an initial $470,000, in addition to some $305,000 Virginia Tech has already pledged to keep the project going. Stilwell said if they can't raise the money by early summer, they won't be able to continue competing.

"Then we quit, but it's not a loss," he said. "It moves our autonomy program into deeper waters."

Contest or not, he's moving the university's marine robotics work to Hampton Roads.

Stilwell, an electrical engineering professor, said his projects have received $1 million annually, "and we do that in the mountains."

"XPrize has to be here," he said of Hampton Roads, where there's ample water. He doesn't foresee it being a temporary home base, requiring team members to drive down from Blacksburg once a month. It'll be a long-term home for the research by students and professors developing underwater autonomous robot systems.

He said the school is eyeing possible locations for a base of operations, likely on the Peninsula to avoid bridge and tunnel traffic. Stilwell wouldn't say where they're looking except to say that Newport News Shipbuilding, which has donated $200,000 to the program already, has offered space. And the university already has a Peninsula presence at its Tech Center in Newport News, in addition to satellite programs in Hampton and Virginia Beach.

©2017 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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