Mayflower Autonomous Ship

IBM to Build ‘Brains’ of Autonomous Research Vessel Mayflower

A global consortium led by marine research organisation ProMare is building an unmanned, fully-autonomous ship. It is to cross the Atlantic on the fourth centenary of the original Mayflower voyage in September 2020. IBM systems, Artificial Intelligence (AI), cloud and edge technologies are to be at the helm for this world first autonomous transatlantic voyage.

The original Mayflower was an English ship that transported the first English Pilgrims, from Plymouth, England, to Plymouth in the New World in 1620. There were 102 passengers and the crew is estimated to have been about thirty, but the exact number is unknown. The ship has become a cultural icon in the history of the United States.

In a THINK Blog on the IBM website, Brett Phaneuf, a Founding Board Member of ProMare and Co-Director of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship project, says about the design of the new Mayflower: ‘If you take the human factor out of ships it allows you to completely reimagine the design. Instead of thinking about eating, sleeping, safety and sanitation, you can focus purely on the mechanics and function of the ship. Our idea was to create an autonomous and crewless vessel that would cross the Atlantic, tracing the route of the original 1620 Mayflower and performing vital research along the way.’

Trimaran Design

‘For MAS to survive the voyage, we needed a form factor that was highly efficient and resilient. That’s why we opted for a trimaran design which is both hydro- and aero-dynamic while having the added advantage of being highly stable in rough seas,’ explains Phaneuf. Using aluminium and composite materials, MAS will be very lightweight: about five tonnes and fifteen metres in length. That’s half the length and less than three per cent of the weight of the original Mayflower.’

Solar Panels and Wind Energy

‘An autonomous ship is of limited use if it keeps needing to refuel,’ says Phaneuf. ‘Ours will use solar panels to charge on-board batteries which will power MAS’s motor – even at night. A single wingsail will allow us to harness wind power as well as make it more visible to other ships – a ship strike in the middle of the Atlantic would be catastrophic. We anticipate that MAS will be able to clock speeds of around 20 knots, compared to the original Mayflower’s humble 2.5 knots.’

The hull of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship is currently being constructed and outfitted in Gdansk, Poland, by Aluship Technology, before being transported to Plymouth, UK later this year.

AI at the Helm

By pairing IBM PowerAI Vision technology with IBM Power Systems accelerated servers (the same technology used by the world’s most powerful supercomputers), IBM is helping ProMare to build deep learning models capable of recognising navigation hazards which come into view in MAS’s on-board video cameras. Trained on real data and images from the Plymouth Sound in the UK, MAS will be capable of recognising hazards such as buoys, debris and other ships and will have constant situational awareness thanks to RADAR, AIS (Automated Identification Systems) and LIDAR – the same technology used in autonomous cars.

When a hazard is detected, MAS will use IBM’s Operational Decision Manager software to help decide autonomously whether to change course or, in case of emergencies, speed out of the way drawing additional power from its on-board back-up generator. Fusing data from nautical maps, sensors and weather forecasts, MAS will be able to determine the optimal path and speed it should take across the Atlantic.

During the voyage, edge devices will collect and analyse ship data and store it locally. When connectivity is available, it will be uploaded to edge nodes located onshore. ProMare and IBM experts will update the deep learning models and push them out to the ship as required. The edge nodes are connected to IBM Cloud, where data is stored in IBM Cloud Object Storage.

Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality

Also coming on board is the UK’s University of Birmingham which will be responsible for the use of virtual, augmented and mixed reality technologies in the MAS mission. Birmingham’s Human Interface Technologies (HIT) Team is leading the development of a Mixed Reality Telepresence Science Station, which will allow school children and members of the public around the world to experience the transatlantic mission.

Cost-efficient Research

‘Putting a research ship to sea can cost tens of thousands of dollars or pounds a day and is limited by how much time people can spend onboard – a prohibitive factor for many of today’s marine scientific missions,’ says Phaneuf. ‘With this project, we are pioneering a cost-effective and flexible platform for gathering data that will help safeguard the health of the ocean and the industries it supports.’

The vessel will carry three research pods containing an array of sensors and scientific instrumentation that scientists will use to advance understanding in a number of vital areas such as maritime cybersecurity, marine mammal monitoring, sea level mapping and ocean plastics. The work will be coordinated by the University of Plymouth, UK, who are at the forefront of marine and maritime research, with support from IBM and ProMare.

Author: Mariska Buitendijk

Mariska Buitendijk is one of SWZ|Maritime's journalists as well as the magazine's copy editor.