COLUMN: What’s my incentive? [The Bow Wave]

Seabed Constructor under charter to Ocean Infinity
Seabed Constructor under charter to Ocean Infinity

Readers will undoubtedly be aware that a US company going by the name of Ocean Infinity has taken to the Indian Ocean in search of the wreckage of flight MH370, still missing after nearly four years.

Ocean Infinity (OI) has tapped the financial market to fund the voyage and has signed an agreement with the Malaysian Government whereby OI will receive cash bonuses if it locates the wreckage within 90 days. The bonus structure is set up so that if OI has to search more area it gets a larger payout.

If it finds the Boeing 777 within the first 5,000km2, then the payment will be US$20 million. If it’s found within 10,000km2, then the bonus is $30 million, and increases to $50 million if the searched area is increased to 25,000km2. If the searched area is even greater then the bonus is $70 million, but this is the most the Malaysian Government will be on the hook for. And of course, if OI finds nothing then the Malaysians pay nothing.

The way the deal is structured, at least from what has been made public, certainly gives OI an incentive to search as much terrain as possible. With eight autonomous seafloor mapping minisubs, the task is expected to take several weeks with the company confident that by as early as February it will be able to announce results.

Mapping the seabed at greater resolution

So, why does this mapping project interest me? Several years ago I was fortunate to attend a presentation by a representative of GEBCO, the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans. GEBCO is an organisation that is attempting to map the worlds’ oceans to a degree not yet achieved.

Presently, the charts of the open ocean are of low resolution, so low in fact that small mountain ranges could exist that we are not aware of. Various governments and NGOs have had a go over the years of getting better data, and of course some data is better than no data, but the map is still rather porous.

Which brings me back to the search for MH370. A multi-government effort that has expended hundreds of millions of dollars to search an area that many experts said was unlikely to be the ultimate destination of the aircraft. The search parameters were dictated by political sensibilities that assumed the pilot was dead, rather than still in control and on a suicide mission which would have caused embarrassment for the Malaysian Government.

The fact that the search committee refused to consider suicide a possibility, and implication of the possible flight path that it might have had, meant that even as new evidence of wreckage drifting onto African shores appeared, the search area was effectively unchanged.

However, a private company that has a goal is going to look at all the evidence and isn’t going to be concerned with issues of national embarrassment if a very profitable prize is waiting. And so in a similar fashion I propose a prize for anyone who can increase the quality of the bathymetric data of the worlds’ oceans.

GEBCO members have already embraced the idea of prizes, but as a contender rather than as the judge with an entry in the Shell Ocean Discovery XPrize. The GEBCO-NF alumni team is led by alumni of the Nippon Foundation/GEBCO Ocean Bathymetry training program at the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping of the University of New Hampshire, and is hoping to win a US$7 million prize by developing deep-sea technologies for autonomous, fast and high-resolution ocean exploration.

Bathymetry of the Atlantic. We’ve improved but still a way to go. Photo: NOAA

The prize that I propose could easily be administered by the International Maritime Organisation or the International Seabed Authority or possibly jointly as both organisations would benefit from the data. GEBCO already operates under the joint auspices of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) (of UNESCO) and the International Hydrographic Organisation (IHO) so it is already well placed to assist with management of the project.

Funding could be obtained from the royalties that the ISA is set to receive from resource extraction projects in international waters and could be “kick started” with some cash from wealthier nations with ocean-going heritage such as the UK, the Netherlands and even China.

My idea for prizes would be based upon increasing the resolution of data over a particular area. The ocean would be divided up into grids or polygons and cash would be awarded once correctly validated bathymetric data for that particular area has been accepted by the judging organisation. The prizes would increase in value as the data density increases.

Some companies may choose to send out fleets of unmanned wave-gliders equipped with single-beam echo-sounders that can sit at sea for months or years whilst others may come up with a multi-beam equipped wavepiercer that can cover large areas in very short time. Others still may choose to develop a satellite based system that takes advantages of the constantly innovating tech sector.

The end result is that the data gets collected, for less than any government would be capable of doing so, and the money is only paid if the mission is successful

I’m keen to hear your thoughts on the idea.

Feel free to contact me at [email protected]

Andrew Baird

Experienced geologist and seabed mining entrepreneur, Andrew reviews cutting edge technology from around the world across a wide spectrum of industries, and considers their potential applications in the work boat world.