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Electric robots are mapping the seafloor, the final frontier of the Earth

Humans have spent thousands of years exploring the mountains, jungles, and deserts of the Earth. In spite of the fact that it covers more than 70% of the Earth's surface, the ocean remains a mystery to scientists. Indeed, we know more about Mars's surface than we do about the ocean floor, which has only been mapped to a degree that is slightly greater than 20% of its total area.

The ability to navigate ships more safely, create more accurate climate models, lay down telecommunications cables, build offshore wind farms, and protect marine species are all benefits of having a more complete picture – all of which are part of the so-called "blue economy," which is expected to be worth $3 trillion by 2030.


This data is being collected more quickly and inexpensively than ever before thanks to the use of underwater robotic vehicles equipped with sensors, which are helping to speed up the process. However, because many of these vehicles are powered by batteries with a limited lifespan and must return to a boat or shore to recharge, it is difficult to map more remote areas of the ocean with these technologies.


A five-year-old startup founded by oceanographer Yi Chao, Seatrec is rising to the challenges. While working at NASA, Chao developed technology to power ocean robots by harnessing the sea's "naturally occurring temperature difference," according to a CNN Business report.


Environmentally friendly and less expensive


The power module can be integrated into existing data collection robots or into Seatrec's own floating device, which can be used to collect data in real time. This dives a kilometer below the surface of the water to examine the chemistry and shape of the seabed, and then uses sonar to create a map of the area. Afterwards, the robot returns to the surface, where it will transmit its findings to Earth via satellite.


During its journey between colder and warmer regions of the ocean, the material inside the module melts or solidifies, creating pressure that generates thermal energy and powers the robot's generator, which is powered by the robot's generator.


According to Chao, "they are charged by the sea, which allows them to live for almost an indefinite period of time."


Typically, a basic float model costs between $20,000 and $25,000 to build. According to Chao, the cost of connecting Seatrec's energy system will be an additional $25,000 dollars.


However, according to Chao, the availability of free, renewable energy as well as the ability to stay in the water for longer periods of time make data collection up to five times more affordable in the long run than it is today. Seatrec's energy module can also be retrofitted onto existing mapping devices to extend their range, he explained. Despite the fact that the startup produces fewer than 100 devices per year, primarily for marine researchers, he believes the technology is easily scalable.


To map more remote parts of the deep sea, according to Jamie McMichael-Phillips, director of the Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project, new technologies that extend the reach of data-gathering devices are essential.


"Physics is one of the most significant challenges we face," McMichael-Phillips explained. "In contrast to mapping the Earth's surface, which can be accomplished with a camera [or] satellites, light does not penetrate the water column at sea, making it impossible to map it. As a result, we are essentially limited to the use of sonar systems in our operations."


It has been almost a year since the Seabed 2030 Project launched, and it has succeeded in raising awareness of the importance of the ocean floor while providing researchers and companies with a clear goal: to map the entire ocean floor by the end of this decade.


Surface surveys of the ocean are carried out by certain companies, such as XOCEAN. Another startup, Bedrock Ocean Exploration, claims that it can survey seafloor areas up to ten times faster than traditional methods by using an autonomous electric submarine equipped with sonars, cameras, and lasers. The data collected is then analyzed on Bedrock's own cloud platform, according to the company.


The upcoming stumbling block


Despite the fact that an increasing number of technologies are speeding up seabed exploration, completing the map continues to be a logistical and financial undertaking.


According to Chao, it will take 3,000 Seatrec floats operating continuously for the next decade to survey the entire ocean completely and completely. The company has raised a $2 million seed round to fund the expansion of its energy harvesting system's manufacturing capacity.


When compared to the capital required to fully survey the ocean, which McMichael-Phillips estimates will cost "somewhere between $3 and $5 billion" – "roughly the same order of magnitude as the cost of sending a mission to Mars," this represents a drop in the bucket.


It is, according to DiMare of Bedrock, past time for us to begin investing in our own planet's future.


As he put it, "if we want to keep the Earth habitable for humans," we must "become much smarter about what's going on in the ocean."

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