Demonstrating Diversity and Solidarity - GEBCO-Nippon Foundation Alumni TeamReport from winners of Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE

Members of the GEBCO-Nippon Foundation Alumni Team, led by alumni of The Nippon Foundation / GEBCO Ocean Bathymetry training program at the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping of University of New Hampshire, visited Japan recently to report on their winning of the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, an international competition in underwater mapping technologies. On September 18 team representatives briefed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his official residence, and held a briefing for field professionals in Japan at Toranomon Hills in Tokyo.

The core team consisted of 16 members from 13 countries, and 15 members and 3 advisors attended the Toranomon Hills briefing. Speaking on behalf of the team, Rochelle Wigley, of the Center for Coastal & Ocean Mapping / Joint Hydrographic Center at the University of New Hampshire and Project Director for all Nippon Foundation / GEBCO projects at the University of New Hampshire, attributed the team’s victory to the teamwork among members of diverse nationalities, languages, and culture.

Representatives of the GEBCO-Nippon Foundation Alumni Team pay a call on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (center right) together with The Nippon Foundation Chairman Yohei Sasakawa (center left)

XPRIZE victory

The competition, held by the XPRIZE Foundation of the United States, ran from October 2016 to February 2019, with 32 teams from 22 countries competing to develop technologies for ocean exploration and discovery. The first stage of the competition was a review of documentation, and was followed by two rounds of field testing. Round 1 was a technology readiness test that involved visits to each of the 19 semifinalist teams and lasted from November 2017 to February 2018. The GEBCO-Nippon Foundation Alumni Team successfully advanced to Round 2, held in late 2018 in the deep sea off Kalamata, Greece, where five teams competed to map 250 square kilometers at five meters resolution and at depths down to 4,000 meters using autonomous underwater technologies. They also had to identify and produce images of at least ten archeological, biological or geological features, all within 24 hours.

The winning team used an unmanned surface vehicle called SEA-KIT to deploy and retrieve an autonomous underwater vehicle that performed the seabed mapping. Compared with using a manned ship, this approach is cheaper and safer, and produces less carbon emission. Going forward, the system can be enhanced to map a wider area with even greater precision.

Sharing an ambitious vision

Commenting on the victory, The Nippon Foundation Executive Director Mitsuyuki Unno attributed the team’s success to: (1) diversity; (2) cooperation and collaboration; and (3) a shared vision. He noted, “With project fellows from 13 countries participating, members from a variety of backgrounds pooled their expertise. All members shared the bond of having completed the training program, so instead of their diverse backgrounds leading to conflict, they were able to succeed because they shared an ambitious vision.”

To date, only roughly 15% of the earth’s seabed has been mapped. Recognizing that a lack of specialists was one of the main reasons for this low figure, The Nippon Foundation and the GEBCO (General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans) Guiding Committee launched a training program at the University of New Hampshire in 2004. So far, the program has trained 90 fellows from 39 countries. In addition to the participating fellows, the XPRIZE-winning team included advisors and corporate partners, with a total of 78 people from 22 countries being involved.

Technologies for Seabed 2030

The Nippon Foundation and GEBCO have launched The Nippon Foundation – GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project with the aim of mapping 100% of the ocean floor by 2030. The purpose of participating in the XPRIZE competition was to develop innovative technologies to achieve this goal. The team’s victory reaffirmed the necessity of having people from diverse backgrounds work together, and demonstrated their successful technological innovation. As winners of the XPRIZE, the team received an award of $4 million, which it intends to reinvest for use in the Seabed 2030 project.

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