Deep-sea explorers turn to Dell to power fleet of intelligent vessels

Deep-sea explorers turn to Dell to power fleet of intelligent vessels

The Arggonauts are among the finalists competing for the US$7 million International Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE

Credit: Dell EMC

The ocean covers more than 70 percent of the Earth's surface but 95 percent of it remains unexplored.

Funding for deep sea exploration is paltry compared to that provided for outer space adventures. The entire surface of Mars has been mapped at a 100m resolution, which means we can see we can objects there that are larger than that size, but the ocean floor has been mapped to a resolution of just 5km.

That may be set to change thanks to the work of the Arggonnauts, a German research crew who have worked with Dell EMC to develop an autonomous fleet of vessels that can explore and map the oceans.

"Our goal, in the long run, is to change the world by enabling mankind to know our own planet much better," crew leader Dr Gunnar Brink tells Computerworld UK.

There could also be significant financial rewards for their work. The Arggonauts are one of nine remaining teams competing for the International Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE of US$7 million.  

In the final round of the competition, each team has up to 24 hours to map at least 250 km2 of the ocean seafloor to depths down to 4,000 meters. Once the vehicles have completed this mission, they must then produce high-resolution images of objects, bathymetric maps or archaeological, biological or geological features.

To quickly cover an area that's nearly three times the size of Paris at depths that more than double that of the Grand Canyon, each of the Arggonauts' five vessels will survey a specific section of the sea before their individual results are assembled into one big map.

Dell EMC's customised Precision 7910 workstation allows the team to control their vehicles from the shore and capture subsea data images. The high-performance computing then translates the raw data captured by sonar systems into 3D maps and classifies the images using AI.

Dell will play a crucial role in another objective of the mission. The Arggonauts must process all the data their fleet has collected within a second 24-hour time limit.

"The computer that Dell provides us enables us to do the whole processing within the time of seven hours," says Brink.

The fleet

Brink is a physician by training with a background in project management, which he drew on to help the Arggonauts quickly design their fleet of vessels.

The team had only eight months to turn their idea into an operational product, and created an agile project management called exTreme Innovation to get it done in time. 

A multidisciplinary team conducted a series of practical trials of theoretically developed applied approaches to quickly understand what would work within their limited budget.

The result was a fleet of torpedo-shaped underwater vehicles fitted with sonar systems that detect what's in the sea by emitting pulses of sound that bounce off the objects that they hit. These systems were chosen because sound waves travel further in the oceans than radar, which relies on radio waves that are absorbed by the dense sea water molecules.

Dell got on-board with the Arggonauts after Brink met a representative of the company at the Compit (Computer Applications and Information Technology in the Maritime Industries) conference in Cardiff.

The project gave Dell the opportunity to contribute to potential scientific breakthrough and access to reams of new data from 70 percent of undiscovered planet, while the Arggonauts got a system that provided power and resilience.

"It's the compute power and the graphics board, which are very powerful," says Brink. "If you have a large amount of pure data, it's the optimum combination. And they're quite robust as well, necause we have to transport them to Greece."

The vessels and their crew are currently in Kalamata, the second most populous city of the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece, and the field test site for the XPRIZE final. 

The winners of the competition will be announced in March, but the Arggonnauts have longer-term ambitions for their project. Like their namesake band of sailors in Greek mythology, they're searching the seas for something that's worth more than just prize money.

"We're very happy to be among the nine finalists having beaten other teams in the world, but our goal is really to make it into a real reliable technology and affordable and really be able to sell it," says Brink.

"Our goal is that in 20 years we will be the participant out of this competition that actually was able to commercialise the technology successfully and therefore really change the world."

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