A Waikanae man has played a key part in helping a team win a global deep sea technologies competition.

Robin Falconer was advisor to the GEBCO-NF (Nippon Foundation) Alumni team which won the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE challenge.

Part of the challenge involved using unmanned technology to map various areas of seafloor, in fine detail, at depths of 2000m and 4000m, before processing the data.
If that wasn't difficult enough, there was an added twist — every piece of equipment had to fit in a 12m container.

Thirty-two teams registered for the competition in 2016 which narrowed to five finalists with the last challenge off the coast of Greece late last year.

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"We had 24 hours to take our boat from a wharf out to 20 miles off shore, do the survey using an underwater vehicle deployed from our surface boat, come back to the wharf, and then had 48 hours to do all the data processing and transfer the data to the judges in electronic form, which was quite a challenge because there was a lot of data."

The multi-nation GEBCO-NF team involved a core team of 16 students who had been through a seabed-mapping programme at the University of New Hampshire.

"Our big driver was how to integrate people with 13 different native languages, nine time zones and being in different parts of the world."

Dr Falconer, who has been involved in the voluntary GEBCO ocean-mapping programme for most of his career, helped manage an ocean-mapping forum in Monaco "where we started the idea of putting a team into XPRIZE".

"When we started out we talked to some of the biggest industry players in the world and they said it was too hard and we couldn't do it within the timeframe available.

"We said 'Let's give it a go' and we did."

Importantly the Japanese Nippon Foundation backed the team including with significant funding.

"We worked on it over a period of two years and came through and won it.

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The winning GEBCO-NF team. Pictured front third from right is Dr Robin Falconer. Photo / Rebecca Marshall
The winning GEBCO-NF team. Pictured front third from right is Dr Robin Falconer. Photo / Rebecca Marshall

"What we did, to a large extent, was put together existing technologies, but we also had to get the unmanned surface boat [called SeaKit Maxlimer] specially built in England to match the 40ft container requirement and the underwater vehicle we used.

"But the big impetus of the team was to integrate things."

The team, which worked well together, also developed good technology for processing large volumes of data quickly.

And the experience and learnings bode well for future projects.

"You can take some very complicated, unmanned technology from the beach to the sea, do some surveys, and bring it back without people.

"And the unmanned surface vessel, which we had built, has the capability to go from New Zealand to Japan and survey on the way.

"It can go to sea for 100 or more days unmanned and do surveys.

"There isn't anything in existence that can do that at present.

"You can do surveys without the risk of putting people to sea, at the tenth of a cost of a big ship with lots of people."