The world’s first fully autonomous ship, “Mayflower 400,” is set to make its maiden voyage across the Atlantic this month. Delayed due to the pandemic, the launch was supposed to take place last year to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the navigation of the original Mayflower, the ship that brought settlers from England to North America.
The Mayflower 400 will be guided by artificial intelligence rather than a human crew. It will depart from Plymouth, England, on May 15 and arrive at Plymouth, Massachusetts, about 3,000 miles. Powered by solar energy, it was unveiled in 2017 as a partnership between IBM, the University of Plymouth, autonomous craft specialists MSubs, and the marine-research nonprofit ProMare.
The 5-ton, 50-foot-long trimaran, which can make its own decisions and navigate in full autonomy, will also be able to study the environment by analyzing marine mammals and the presence of plastic in the ocean. With no captain or onboard crew, Mayflower 400 uses AI to traverse the ocean in its quest for data and discovery on whale populations, sea levels, microplastics in the ocean, and other research topics. It has a sophisticated system of cameras and radar to continue learning about its environment.
The ocean is the heart of the planet that also regulates the global climate. More than 80% of our ocean is unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored due to their size and the dangers they contain. “Having a ship without people on board allows scientists to expand the area they can observe,” said Rosie Lickorish, a specialist in emerging technologies at IBM.
Built in Poland to ProMare’s specifications, the vessel incorporates many advanced marine architecture features designed to withstand the stresses of extended trips at sea. Despite being fully autonomous, a team in the UK will monitor the vessel 24 hours a day, ready to take control of the ship if necessary.
“The key to putting an autonomous ship at sea, without humans at the helm, was computing technology that could power onboard intelligence,” according to IBM.