As land-based mineral resources are depleted, a new frontier for the extraction of precious metals has emerged: the ocean’s floor. UK-based Soil Machine Dynamics has reported that its mining robot prototype passed the first round of shallow-water testing, a significant step in the advancement of deep-sea mining.
Soil Machine Dynamics has partnered with Canadian mining firm Nautilus Minerals as well as a consortium of European companies and government entities in separate deep-sea mining projects.
SMD has operated for over 45 years constructing underwater technology such as ROVs and undersea cables while also providing maintenance for offshore oil platforms. An investment boom in deep-sea mining technology has meant SMD leading the charge in providing robotic mining equipment which will harvest the likes of gold, silver, copper, and zinc embedded as deep as 1,600 meters below sea level.
Nautilus Minerals first unveiled the SMD-built mining machines known as seafloor production tools, or SPTs, in November of 2015. Their ambitions to mine the floor of the Bismarck Sea off the coast of Papua New Guinea were granted only after Nautilus granted the government of PNG intellectual property rights from the digs. This agreement permitted Nautilus to attain approximately $149 million in funding for a first-of-its-kind ship capable of deploying the SPTs and processing the minerals which they will recover.
Nautilus began conducting submerged tests of their SPTs in July, and plans to begin mineral extraction in the Bismarck Sea by 2019. Soil Machine Dynamics’ latest announcement of a successful underwater test carried out on an abandoned mine in the English county of Devon signals progress for a European viable alternative mine operating system project, known as VAMOS. The project is part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, and the consortium of investors includes 16 institutions from nine EU member nations. The excavation of a deeper test site located in Bosnia and Herzegovina is scheduled for Spring 2018, an undertaking that will serve as the second of four rounds of testing.
As of now, The International Seabed Authority, which oversees the regulation of deep-sea mining in international waters, has granted contracts to more than 25 nations seeking to explore deep-sea mineral deposits, and Soil Machine Dynamics’ partnerships have taken the lead in what has been referred to as an underwater gold rush.