Mining companies are ready to tackle two new frontiers like never before: space and the deep sea.
The deep ocean is a place that's not only rich in sea life, vast swathes of it are also abundant in metals such as nickel, copper, cobalt, zinc, which are essential to making smartphones, electric vehicles, and solar panel parts.
The problem is that marine scientists and environmentalists strongly oppose the invasive methods proposed by these mining companies as they might irreversibly damage fragile ecosystems. Renewable energy firm Pliant Energy Systems thinks it has the solution to this problem.
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Pliant Energy Systems (PES), which stared plying its trade by creating systems that harness the power of water to generate renewable energy, has created an autonomous robot that resembles a manta ray in appearance and in its rippling underwater motion.
As PES founder Pietro Filardo tells IEEE Spectrum, the company's goal is to harvest small deposits of precious ores off the seafloor without damaging or disrupting precious habitats.
"On the one hand, we need these metals to electrify and decarbonize. On the other hand, people worry we’re going to destroy deep ocean ecosystems that we know very little about,” Filardo told IEEE Spectrum.
Ultimately, the way in which companies will be allowed to mine the seafloor is down to the International Seabed Authority (ISA). The intergovernmental body is expected to enforce a set of environmental standards from next month, known as the Mining Code, which could lead to increased mining activity on large parts of the world's seafloors.
A lot more research is needed on the effect such machines could have on the seafloor — but either way, Pliant Energy System's submersible autonomous robot is a new, impressive example of the potential soft robotics has for helping humans reach harsh environments while causing as little environmental damage as possible.