TAMPA — First, a team from the nonprofit Tampa Hackerspace won a competition to help NASA affordably explore deep space.
Now a different group from the workshop that provides equipment and space for technology projects is advancing in another contest, this one to invent autonomous underwater mapping devices that can make deep-sea exploration economical.
"Less than 15 percent of the deep ocean has been mapped at a high resolution," said Edward Larson, captain of the Tampa Deep Sea X-Plorers team that has made it to the semifinals of the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE contest. "This represents a significant challenge."
In March, the contest will name finalists who later this year will get a chance to prove their inventions can most clearly, efficiently and affordably provide images at a depth of 4,000 meters.
The grand prize is $4 million. Contestants maintain ownership of their technology, so winners can better market their creations to the marine science industry.
The X-Plorers are using a scuba tank as a device-base that, with alterations, can hold a propulsion piece, GPS and a sensor package that could include a radar, video camera or other options.
"One of the more expensive parts is trying to design a vessel that will withstand that type of depth," said Larson, whose background includes robotics and work as a saturation diving technician.
"A tank is a pressure vessel,'' he said. "These can look for oil and minerals and wrecks. And there is a lot of subsea geology that is unexplored."
The contest started in late 2016 with 32 teams. They were whittled to 19 semifinalists from around the world based on their technical plans. Judges then traveled the globe for a look at the inventions. Tampa's site visit was in December.
How many teams make the finals is up to the judges.
Though Larson's device has only been tested in rivers and pools and nowhere near 4,000 meters down, he's not worried. "We have a good team," he said.
Half of the 12-person group, Larson included, is from Hackerspace.
Founded in 2013 and located near Tampa International Airport, Hackerspace, for a fee, provides 24-7 work space and equipment to hobbyists and inventors spanning fields like 3D printing, home automation, drones and video gaming.
"The level of sheer genius that this space attracts is amazing," Larson said.
If the X-Plorers advance, it will be another Hackerspace success story.
With the help of six different Hackerspace members, including its leader Wes Faler, the 17-person Team Miles was named one of the three finalists last year in a NASA contest to invent affordable miniature satellites. NASA will launch their invention into deep space in 2020.
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Team Miles' bread box-sized satellite is powerful enough to broadcast signals to earth from further than 28 million miles away. And its price of just $500,000 makes it much cheaper than the large satellites traditionally used.
Cost is what has held up deep-sea exploring, said Jyotika Virmani, senior director of planet and environment at the XPRIZE Foundation, a nonprofit organization that designs and manages public competitions intended to encourage technological development that could benefit mankind.
All bodies of water have been charted from space, but underwater mapping is required to get a clear image of what exists in the deep sea — depths beyond the edge of the continental shelf.
"The ocean covers 70 percent of our planet," Virmani said on the phone while in France meeting with a team. "If we use the technology of today it would cost $2 billion and take between 200 and 800 years to map the ocean floor."
The largest hindrance is that the bulky current technology needs a big vessel for transportation, Virmani said, and that alone can cost as much as $100,000 a day, "So before mapping starts, you could drop $1.2 million."
The X-Plorers' plan for the finals is to program 12 of the scuba tanks that are turned into mapping devices with specific exploration instructions.
These will be fashioned to shoots on a pontoon boat the team modified to be autonomous and controlled by land or another ship. The tanks will then be propelled into the sea and return once the mission is complete.
"We want to build something that can sell for $50,000 to replace something that costs $250 million to do now," said X-Plorers' Joseph Daum, a consultant that helps tech companies win government contracts.
"And with that we can finally get a clear look at the ocean floor."
Contact Paul Guzzo at email@example.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.