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Friday, March 10, 2017

Local ocean engineering graduate is semifinalist in international contest for deep-water exploration

Narragansett native considered leader in field

Phillip Rhyner, a 2007 ocean engineering graduate from
the University of Rhode Island. Photo courtesy of Phillip Rhyner.
Phillip Rhyner’s submersible searched for gold off the coast of Alaska years ago as part of a reality television show, but now the University of Rhode Island graduate is on the hunt for something else: a hefty prize for his deep-sea underwater technology.

Rhyner, 36, who graduated from URI in 2007 with a degree in ocean engineering, is one of 21 semifinalists for the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, an international contest featuring the latest technology in rapid, unmanned and high-resolution ocean exploration.

The semifinalists were announced at the Catch the Next Wave conference in San Diego Feb. 24. Rhyner works as an engineer at Eddy Pump Corp. in El Cajon, Calif., and he heads Orca Robotics in San Diego as a personal project.

“For me, it’s the biggest undertaking I’ve ever taken on,’’ says Rhyner. “It’s been thrilling since I started this. I’m confident I will fare well.”

XPRIZE officials say Rhyner is among the leaders in underwater exploration.


“These semifinalist teams are on the cutting edge, pushing the boundaries in developing deep-sea underwater technologies that will work in the lightless, cold depths to fully map one of our world’s final frontiers like never before,’’ says Jyotika Virmani, senior director of XPRIZE’s Energy and Environment Group. 

“Through the XPRIZE we have an unprecedented opportunity to create next generation tools, technologies and techniques that will illuminate deep-sea wonders and unlock an era of ocean exploration.”

Rhyner, a Narragansett native, made a name for himself nationally for designing a remotely operated, submersible sub-dredge that pumps sediment from the sea floor.

The car-sized dredge was a star in the Discovery Channel show “Bering Sea Gold,’’ where it was lowered under the ice off the coast of northwest Alaska to search for gold. Rhyner went to Alaska for two months to oversee filming.

His latest work involves creating underwater vessels and drones for the XPRIZE contest. Rhyner and his team at Orca Robotics are creating an underwater system that uses sonar and computing power to provide results in real time.

“I am at the stage of finishing the design, sourcing materials to build prototypes to test, fundraising, and all around stressing on how I can get two years of work done in a few months for the contest,’’ says Rhyner, from his home in California. 

“My goal is to turn the ocean map into what Google maps do for street views. I think this contest will open the door for mapping the chemistry, biology and physical condition of the entire ocean.”

Over the next 10 months, Rhyner and the others will add the finishing touches to their project for the second round. They will focus on mapping at least 20 percent of the competition area to identify at least five archaeological, biological or geological features at any depth, all within 16 hours.

Translation: The projects will try to reach depths deeper than the Grand Canyon and map an area that is nearly five times the area of Paris. Ten finalists will be selected to go past the second round and will split a $1 million prize.

In the finals, a $4 million grand prize and a $1 million second place prize will be awarded. Orca Robotics and other semifinalists are also competing for a $1 million bonus prize from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Rhyner is in good company. Among the other semifinalists are Blue Devil Ocean Engineering at Duke University, ARGGONAUTS from Germany, KUROSHIO from Japan, GEBCO-NF from New Zealand, Tampa Deep-Sea X-Explorers from Tampa, Fla., and ENVIRODRONE from Ontario, Canada.


Rhyner says he welcomes any input from ocean engineering students at URI. “I’m very proud of my education from the ocean engineering program at URI,” he says. 

“I’m very open to them if they want any involvement in my XPRIZE project. I’d be proud to say this is an Orca Robotics entry in partnership with URI’s ocean engineering program.”