Xprize offers $7 million for exploring the ocean floor

The Shell Ocean Discovery Xprize offers serious cash for mapping the seafloor with robots.

After years of focusing on moonshots and other lofty goals, the Xprize Foundation now hopes to inspire innovation in the opposite direction... in a very literal sense. Its new Shell Ocean Discovery Xprize is offering a total of $7 million in awards to teams that can deliver robotic exploration of sea floors as deep as 4,000m (13,123ft). The $4 million grand prize and a $1 million runner-up prize will go to the groups that deliver the sharpest maps on top of meeting baseline requirements for autonomy, depth and speed. The top 10 teams will split a $1 million milestone prize, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is chipping in another $1 million for teams that spot objects through biological and chemical clues.

It'll take a while before you hear about the projects, let alone the results. Teams have 9 months to sign up, a year to develop their robots and 18 months of judging and testing. However, it may be worth the wait. As scientists have learned, deep sea robotic exploration is both pretty risky and quite rare -- a fast, reliable mapping machine would represent a major breakthrough. In the end, the 3-year competition could shed light on a part of the world that remains very mysterious.