Ship or iceberg? $50K prize for best ways to tell the difference

More than a thousand people from around the world are locked in a competition to see if they can come up with a better way to spot icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland.

Online iceberg-spotting competition has already attracted more than 1,000 participants

The Centre for Cold Ocean Resource Engineering and Norwegian energy company Statoil have launched a competition to find a more effective method of spotting icebergs that post a risk to infrastructure in the Newfoundland offshore industry. (C-CORE)

More than a thousand people from around the world are locked in a competition to see if they can come up with a better way to spot icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland.

It was launched by the Centre for Cold Ocean Resource Engineering and Norwegian energy company Statoil, who are looking to crowdsource a better way to identify icebergs drifting towards the Grand Banks, posing a risk to people's lives and oil and gas equipment.

C-CORE and Statoil are offering $50,000 US in prizes to whoever can come up with the best ways to identify icebergs on satellite images that contain thousands of different objects, or targets.

For the Kaggle competition, participants are asked to look at different types of satellite images that include icebergs, ships and other targets, and determine which is which. (Kaggle)

The two groups have posted the the challenge on Kaggle, a Google-owned website where people compete to come up with solutions to a wide range of data problems. This particular challenge is called the Iceberg Classifier Challenge.

"We've got a database of 5,000 targets that we've uploaded to this website and the competition, which has prize money of $50,000, will give people the incentive to look very closely at our database,"  said Desmond Power, C-CORE's vice-president of remote sensing.

We are absolutely flabbergasted. We were expecting maybe a couple hundred teams.- Desmond Power

To spot icebergs, offshore oil companies use satellite images to visually try to differentiate icebergs from other objects in the ocean such as ships.

While new satellites and other technologies have improved the process over the years, C-CORE and Statoil are looking to find approaches they haven't explored yet.

C-CORE and Statoil are interested in finding better ways to locate icebergs before they drift near oil and gas infrastructure. By spotting them early, it gives companies time to tow icebergs out of the way or move their equipment. (C-CORE)

"The issue is there are lots of things that show up in a satellite image besides icebergs. There are ships and marine life. So we need to be able to understand what each target looks like," said Power.

"We want to see if there are things that we just aren't seeing, things we might not have tried before," he said.

"By harnessing the brains of over 1,000 people from all around the world for a measly $50,000, we are hoping to do much better and basically give us some new ideas."

Overwhelming response

Power said when they first decided to go ahead with the Kaggle competition, they didn't expect to get so much interest. So when they saw 1,000 teams sign up before they even officially announced it on Tuesday, both C-CORE and Statoil were blown away.

The leaderboard for the Kaggle competition has been constantly changing since it launched, with teams from China, Russia, the U.S. and more all vying to win the $50,000 US prize. (Kaggle)

Teams so far have been from all over the world, with many from China, Russia and Silicon Valley.

Power said the iceberg competition has attracted even more interest than an U.S. government-funded one on airport screening, which has a top prize of half a million dollars.

"We've managed to attract 1,000 teams. We are absolutely flabbergasted. We were expecting maybe a couple hundred teams," Power said.

"It's an interesting thing to try out for them, I guess. Icebergs are cool, satellite images are cool."

The deadline for submissions to the competition is Jan. 23.

With files from St. John's Morning Show