"To reach the final has been an outstanding achievement. We began this journey with an ambitious dream on a minimal budget and secured a fantastic partner in Newcastle University to create TeamTao."
Mike Jones, SMD CEO
A team of North East-based subsea engineering experts are preparing to represent the UK in the final of the prestigious $7m Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE competition to map the sea floor.
This month TeamTao, the only UK team and one of the smallest to reach the grand final of the Ocean XPRIZE, head to Greece to field test their technology in the last round of the prestigious international competition, which aims to create next generation tools and techniques for rapid, unmanned ocean exploration and discovery.
The designated competition area is roughly 500 sq km of seafloor, which is equivalent to an area the size of Paris. The teams get 24 hours to map as much of the area as possible at a resolution of 5m horizontally and 0.5m vertically. There can be no human intervention and the equipment must fit within a 40ft container.
During the final round testing, TeamTao will showcase their autonomous swarm system technology, and compete against seven other teams from around the world to map the largest area of seafloor in deep waters off the coast of Greece near the port city of Kalamata.
TeamTao will demonstrate the capability and efficiency of their swarm system of subsea drones and an autonomous surface deployment and recovery vessel to chart the seafloor and identify 10 archaeological, biological or geological features of interest at any depth.
Based in the National Centre for Subsea and Offshore Engineering at Newcastle University, TeamTao brings together experts from UK-based subsea engineering specialist Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD) and Newcastle University.
Dale Wakeham, SMD Design Engineer and TeamTao Project Leader, said: “The team has been working tirelessly during the last six months to develop and refine the technology and we are looking forward to representing the UK in such a prestigious international arena.
“The Ocean XPRIZE competition presents a significant challenge but we are using it as an opportunity to accelerate development and showcase to the world what the future of subsea survey looks like.”
Dr Jeff Neasham, the team’s sonar expert and a Senior Lecturer at Newcastle University, added: “Newcastle University is immensely proud to be part of TeamTao and to have reached the final of the Ocean X-prize Competition.
“It has been hugely challenging to develop an innovative seabed mapping solution from scratch and we are very excited to see how this technology can impact ocean exploration in the future.”
Mike Jones, SMD CEO, said: “To reach the final has been an outstanding achievement. We began this journey with an ambitious dream on a minimal budget and secured a fantastic partner in Newcastle University to create TeamTao. Together we have engineered a truly pioneering and cost-effective method of rapidly mapping the ocean floor and water column.
“In recent months, we’ve also received further support from a number of partners and generous sponsors, including UK Research and Innovation. This has enabled us to scale-up operations dramatically, and while there is still a lot of hard work to do, we’re on track to demonstrate our system’s capabilities, which are revolutionary both in terms of cost and speed of map generation, and once scaled up, they will change the way our oceans are monitored in future.”
The Ocean XPRIZE team that comes out on top will win $4m. Second place earns $1m. The winning team will be announced in March 2019.
The competition is part of XPRIZE’s 10-year Ocean Initiative – a commitment made to launch five multi-million dollar prizes by 2020 to address critical ocean challenges and inspire innovation that helps create an ocean that is healthy, valued and understood.
SMD and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) are the title sponsors behind TeamTao. SMD is a world-leading designer and manufacturer of specialist subsea remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) based in Newcastle upon Tyne. UKRI is a national funding agency with a £6 billion budget to invest in science and research across the UK. It brings together seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and Research England. Newcastle University is a world-leader in subsea engineering and acoustics research, bringing together experts from a wide range of engineering and scientific backgrounds.
Andrew Tyrer, Robotics and AI Challenge Director at UK Research and Innovation, said: “TeamTao encapsulates all that is great about the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund investment in Robotics and AI technologies. To see both SMD and Newcastle University develop innovative solutions so quickly to address the Shell XPRIZE challenge is awe-inspiring. As the only UK-based consortium left in the competition, I wish them every success in the forthcoming trials.”
Other sponsors and supporters of TeamTao include Rajant, Sonardyne, WAM-V, Lenovo, Altair, Swansea University, Advanced Industrial Solutions, Solidworks and Volz Servos.
In addition to TeamTao representing the UK, other teams competing in the final represent Germany, Japan, Portugal, Switzerland and the United States.
To advance to the final round, the eight semi-finalist teams had to pass a technology readiness test. This included a site visit by XPRIZE staff and judges where the technology was tested against rigorous measurement criteria to show the approach was capable of meeting the operational requirements necessary for rapid, unmanned, high-resolution ocean mapping.