New underwater robots mine the deep sea floor without environmental damage

The AI-powered machines make deep sea mining safe for natural habitats.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Representational image of an underwater robot.jpg
Representational image of an underwater robot.


New underwater robots may help to safely mine the ocean floor for the various metals, including copper, cobalt and nickel that are used to build electric vehicle batteries, solar panels, wind turbines and smartphones. 

In a new report by CBS News published on Friday, Renee Grogan, the co-creator of Impossible Metals, a company studying sustainable underwater mining solutions, highlighted his company's robot prototype Eureka that could mine the deep blue seas without causing environmental damage.

Ecosystems intact

"We need to be able to ensure that the ecosystem on the seafloor remains intact," Grogan said. 

CBS News reported that Eureka was lowered into the Canadian side of Lake Huron and that its retractable arm, driven by artificial intelligence, picked up rocks from the lake floor that mimic nodules of metals without disturbing their surrounding environment. 

"The claws themselves are driven by the AI and say 'Take it, leave it, take it,'" Grogan explained. 

The company now has ambitious plans to deploy a fleet of underwater vehicles, each costing about $5 million, which could travel four miles underwater and roam over the ocean floor without disturbing the sand, only collecting the valuable nodules that do not contain animal products. 

The process is designed to not be invasive to the natural fauna especially compared to typical deep sea mining that involves dredging the bottom of the ocean with giant robotic shovels. 

The company is now just waiting for the United Nations-established International Seabed Authority to grant mining permits in what's known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, an area of 2 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean stretching from Hawaii to Mexico.

Rich with mineral deposits

The area is rich with mineral deposits but activists have warned that mining it could potentially destroy the habitats of more than 5,000 deep sea species. 

Douglas McCauley, an ocean scientist at University of California Santa Barbara, has warned against deep sea mining stating that it could stir up toxic plumes of sediment that could threaten fisheries that humans depend on. 

“We can't try to save the planet by breaking the planet in the process, right?" McCauley said. "Those several years of mining are going to cause centuries of damage." 

Asked about Impossible Metals’ non-invasive robots, McCauley said he did not believe the solution was possible. 

"To do it tactically, with that kind of precision, is going to be hard or perhaps even impossible," he said. 

But Grogan insists her company is about "halfway down the path" to a future where the robots are used to safely mine underwater, extracting precious metals while protecting natural habitats. 

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