Mayflower Autonomous Ship prepares for a transatlantic voyage without a captain

In 1620, the British ship Mayflower transported the first English Puritans from England to the New World, on a voyage that lasted 10 weeks. The ship had a total of 132 passengers on board, including the crew.

Now, on the 400th anniversary of the start of this epic voyage, an autonomous solar-powered marine research vessel launches its mission to collect environmental data on the ocean. Starting from Plymouth in the United Kingdom on September 16, 2020, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS), as it is called, will travel to Plymouth, Massachusetts, after spending six months collecting data on the state of the ocean.

The ship does not have a captain. It will travel autonomously, thanks to an AI Captain built by ProMare and IBM developers, which gives MAS the ability to sense, think and make decisions at sea with no human captain or onboard crew. The AI Captain System is supported by IBM’s latest advanced edge computing systems, automation software, and computer vision technology.

The marine research vessel will traverse oceans gathering vital environmental data.
The marine research vessel will traverse oceans gathering vital environmental data.

The propulsion consists of an electric motor and batteries that are powered by solar panels on the skin of the flat ship. In an emergency or when the ship has to accelerate quickly, a generator that runs on biodiesel starts. On the roof is a simple sail, which propels the ship, but also increases the visibility for other ships.

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship is 15 meters long, 6.2 meters wide, and weighs 4.5 tons, which is about half the length and less than 3% of the original Mayflower. The hull is made of aluminum and composite materials, making the ship light in weight. The maximum speed is 10 knots (18.5 km/h).

The ship is equipped with the most modern navigation and position determining instruments and also has the latest oceanographic and meteorological measuring instruments, a satellite communication system, and 2D LiDAR and RADAR sensors.

The project is the result of a collaboration between IBM, a non-profit marine research organization ProMare, and a number of leading scientific organizations. The new-generation Mayflower promises to transform oceanography by working in tandem with scientists and other autonomous vessels to help understand critical issues such as global warming, micro-plastic pollution, and marine mammal conservation.

Protecting the ocean depends on our ability to engage the public in important matters affecting its health. This MAS400 portal is designed to do exactly that and tell people where the ship is, what speed it’s traveling at, what conditions it’s operating in, and what science we are conducting. Users can even help Artie the Octopus fish out surgical masks, cigarette butts, and other increasingly common forms of ocean litter from a virtual ocean of facts and data,” says Fredrik Soreide, Scientific Director of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship Project and Board Member of ProMare.

The new ship was developed and built for two years. MAS will spend the next six months in sea trials and undertake various research missions and voyages before attempting to cross the Atlantic in Spring 2021. MAS’s transatlantic voyage will be based on a similar route and pioneering spirit to the 1620 Mayflower, which made the same crossing 400 years ago.