A Bus-Sized Robot Will Soon Be Mining the Ocean Floor

By Marc Prosser / SingularityHub

Four kilometers below sea level between Mexico and Hawaii sit vast deposits of rare metals central to technologies like renewable energy and computing. The deposits have long enticed entrepreneurs while confounding engineers tasked with finding ways of extracting the metals.

Now, a bus-sized robot is aiming to prove that it may hold the key to gathering the potato-sized, metal-rich nodules sitting on the seafloor, a prospect that is creating equal amounts of excitement and concern.

Meet the ‘Mega-Roomba’

The robust robot in question is called the Patania II. A small factoid that may stand you in good stead in Trivial Pursuit: it’s named after the world’s fastest caterpillar.

Patania II is built by the Belgian company Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSMR), a subsidiary of the dredging and offshore company DEME. If everything goes according to plan, the 12-meter-long (39-foot) robot will descend four kilometers into the ocean in the so-called Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a 1.7 million square mile abyssal plain.

Once it reaches the seabed, the Patania II, which looks a bit like the offspring of a bulldozer, a combine harvester, and a Roomba vacuum cleaner, will try to suck up metal-rich nodules through four vacuums as it traverses a 400-meter-long strip of sea floor. If successful, it will deposit the nodules at a designated spot, as its current iteration can’t transport them back to the surface.

As the name indicates, the Patania II is the second iteration of the craft, and GSMR plans to launch a third test vehicle in 2023 that will be able to bring the nodules up to awaiting surface ships.

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