Cobalt, copper, nickel, zinc. Precious materials needed for an increasingly technology-driven world. Deep-sea mining could be the key to keeping pace in the future of technology. The challenges, however, are many: a barely understood overwhelming darkness, which it harbors deep-sea fish and ancient microbes. A world apart, more suited to autonomous underwater vehicles (real underwater mining robots) than human submarines.
These autonomous robots are already revolutionizingunderwater exploration and could also be used for deep-sea mining.
Pliant Energy Systems, based in Brooklyn, may have a robot potentially suitable for the job. The company is working to transform its Velox robots (which look like a headless Manta ray) with wavy, flexible fins that descend along the sides into submarine mining robots, autonomous deep-sea mining machines.
C-Ray, the new generation
Pliant is collaborating with MIT to make a new generation version. The new underwater mining robots will be called C-Ray, will be larger than Velox, and will use metal detectors, camera suites and algorithms to navigate and explore.
The long-term vision for deep-sea mining and the future of technology is a swarm of C-Rays communicating through a "beehive mind" managed by artificial intelligence. They will scour the seabed looking for superficial deposits of precious materials (called polymetallic nodules) and place them in special cages that will rise to the surface.
We need new laws
The institutional framework for deep sea mining is already beginning to come into focus. The International Seabed Authority consolidated its mining code last fall, the first step in commercial deep-sea mining. Thirty exploratory permits have been issued, most of them for the type of polymetallic nodule skimming that C-Ray plans to do.
Deep water extraction as potentially will (I hope) be less harmful to the environment than the removal of the earth's surface (and less exploitable than, for example, Congolese cobalt mines)? Perhaps also because the deep seas provide unique environmental challenges. Or with “schools” of underwater mining robots will we devour the planet like piranhas?
Precious metals in the future of technology
“On the one hand, we need these metals to electrify and decarbonise,” he says Pietro Filardo, founder and CEO of Pliant Energy Systems. "On the other hand, people fear that we will destroy deep ocean ecosystems that we know very little about."