UK team reach the final of the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE

A group of North-East based subsea engineers has become the only UK team to reach the final of the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE and receive an equal share of a $1 million milestone prize for developing new approaches to map the ocean floor.

Team Tao, which is based in the National Centre for Subsea and Offshore Engineering at Newcastle University, will compete against nine other teams from seven countries to represent the UK in the final to win the $7M Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE.

Team Tao brings together industry experts from UK-based subsea engineering specialist Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD) and Newcastle University. Together they have developed an autonomous swarm system for rapid and unmanned deep ocean exploration.

Mike Jones, SMD CEO, said: “We are delighted to make the final of the competition and represent the UK in such a prestigious arena. Our Chief Technology Officer Chris Wilkinson, along with his Design Engineer Dale Wakeham and the team have run with this on a minimal budget and secured a fantastic partner in Newcastle University to create Team Tao. Together they have engineered an innovative, cost effective way of rapidly mapping the ocean floor and water column. We’ve also received some fantastic support from a number of other partners and sponsors, which really goes to show what can be achieved when you give a team of ambitious, bright and courageous engineers the space and freedom to tackle a problem, which is very much the way SMD started. There’s still a lot of hard work to do and some very good competitors, but we believe we have the team and idea to win.”

Ninety five percent of the ocean is unexplored; we know more about the surface of Mars than what exists thousands of meters below the waves. Sponsored by Shell, the competition calls for teams to develop underwater robots that can fully map and discover the wonders of the deep-sea like never before by advancing the autonomy, scale, speed, depths and resolution of ocean exploration.

To advance to the final round, Team Tao and the semi-finalist teams had to pass a Round 1 Technology Readiness Test, which comprised of a site visit by XPRIZE staff and judges. The team’s technology was tested against rigorous measurement criteria to show its approach was capable of meeting operational requirements necessary for rapid, unmanned and high-resolution ocean mapping and discovery.

The final, Round 2 testing will take place during October and November of 2018. Finalists will have an opportunity to demonstrate their technologies in the real-world in a deep sea environment, where they will have to map the sea floor at 4000m depth and bring back ten images from the ocean.

Professor Nick Wright, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Innovation and Business at Newcastle University said: “Newcastle University is delighted that our joint entry into the XPRIZE with SMD and Team Tao, has made the final of this globally prestigious competition. It highlights the outstanding quality of innovative engineering that the team have achieved in a remarkably short timetable and speaks volumes about the remarkable collaboration between the University and this world-leading company.”

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 through its Tyne Subsea Centre for subsea and offshore engineering. The first of its kind in the UK, the Tyne Subsea Centre brings together academia and industry in a world-class engineering research facility.

SMD and CRRC TEC, both subsidiaries of Chinese parent company CRRC Ltd, are the main sponsors behind Team Tao. SMD is a world-leading designer and manufacturer of specialist subsea remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and CRRC TEC is the world’s largest provider of propulsion and power control systems.

Chris Wilkinson, Team Tao Advisor and Chief Technology Officer at SMD UK, explains: “SMD is known for delivering innovative subsea technology solutions and this competition is all about finding faster and cheaper ways to create maps of our sea beds. The challenge is significant and being part of the competition is very much about taking part in a journey of learning and innovating. The technologies that 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.”

Finalists will be formally recognised at Oceanology International’s Catch the Next Wave conference in London on March 15. In addition to Team Tao representing the UK, other teams competing in the final represent Germany, Japan, Portugal, Switzerland and the United States.

Teams in the final begin Round 2 in September 2018 undergoing deep-sea tests challenging the teams to operate their solutions at depths of 4,000 meters. The winning team will be announced in December 2018.