The Mayflower, an autonomous ship, embarking on various missions over the next six months ahead of its transatlantic journey. This Mayflower looks nothing like the one in history books. (Image credit: University of Birmingham’s Human Interface Technologies Team)


COVID-19 upset everyone’s plans for 2020, including autonomous robots. A robot powered boat dubbed the Mayflower Autonomous Research Ship (MAS) was set to cross the Atlantic this month, but thanks to the virus, its voyage has been delayed until April 2021.


Named after the historical ship that carried pilgrims from the UK to the US, MAS is a 15-meter trimaran built to test the waters of autonomous shipping while gathering scientific research on the ocean. The initiative is being led by marine research organization ProMare and IBM, its technology partner. Though its transatlantic journey has been postponed, the ship will be sent on several voyages and missions over the next six months after its officially unveiled on September 16th, the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower departure in 1620.


The ship will rely on an onboard AI Captain, which uses computer vision, automation software, and IBM’s Watson technology. Operators will tell the ship where to go, and the vessel will figure out how to get there itself considering the weather, ocean currents, collision regulations, and other factors. The Mayflower is also equipped with radar, cameras, and the Automated Identification System (AIS) to react to ocean traffic in real-time. The AIS also transmits the ship’s information, like latitude and longitude, to other boats.


The Mayflower will be unmanned, but it won’t be crossing the waters alone. The ship will carry various science experiments, one of which is a water analysis experiment that samples seawater every few hours and stores it in roughly 100 bottles. Scientists at UK’s Plymouth University will then analyze the samples to determine microplastic levels at different points in the ocean.


IBM has also developed a system that identifies whales and their pods based on their song, which is picked up by an onboard hydrophone. Another project involves analyzing the shape of the Earth using GPS to measure the level of the ocean and then subtracting the tides, weather, and wind to get a unified model.


Unlike its namesake, the Mayflower will only take two to three weeks to complete its journey, weather permitting. The benefit of the unmanned vessel is there’s no one onboard to tired or bored. The ship can go as fast or slow as it wants. It can also be diverted to explore something new or interesting at a minimal expense. The Mayflower’s team expects the ship will run into problems, but they’re confident that it is robust enough to make the journey.


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