In 1620, a monohull sailing vessel called Mayflower, about 80 feet long, carried 102 passengers and some 30 crew from Plymouth, England, across the Atlantic Ocean to what would become known as the New World. Four hundred years later, another Mayflower, this one a 53-foot trimaran, is scheduled to make the same journey—driven by hybrid propulsion and artificial intelligence (AI), without a single soul on board.

“The future is interesting,” says Brett Phaneuf, a founding board member of the nonprofit ProMare and co-director of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship Project, which began construction on the new boat in September. “Using this new technology and robotic systems, we can help to make everybody safer on the water, and we can learn more about our environment and become better stewards of it.”

The Mayflower project is drawing on talent from around the world, including Prof. Kevin Jones at the University of Plymouth and, from IBM, Rosie Lickorish and Eric Aquaronne.

The Mayflower project is drawing on talent from around the world, including Prof. Kevin Jones at the University of Plymouth and, from IBM, Rosie Lickorish and Eric Aquaronne.

The new Mayflower will be a data-collecting and sorting machine, designed from the start as a research platform. Aluship Technology in Poland is building the hull, which will be fitted out in Plymouth, England, before the finished vessel sets sail from there for Plymouth, Massachusetts, on September 6, 2020. The boat is expected to make landfall in the United States about 12 days after it departs England.

Numerous entities are involved in the project, ranging from the University of Plymouth and Rotec Hydraulics to MSubs and IBM. Onboard research will be concentrated in four areas: maritime security, sea mammal monitoring, sea-level mapping and ocean microplastics.

As the boat crosses the ocean at 7 to 8 knots (it can go faster if necessary, such as to avoid weather), it will collect data that the technology systems can then relay to researchers on land. As just one example, the boat will have hydrophones that listen for whales and other cetaceans—and that should be able to hear better than those aboard vessels with loud diesel engines, given that the Mayflower’s propulsion systems will be solar-driven and hybrid.

“The boat will be very quiet, with low noise around the hull, so we’ll be able to listen very intently,” Phaneuf says. “We’ll provide that data for real-time analysis to marine biologists who study whales.”

IBM is taking the lead role in the project’s cybersecurity, using Edge software to manage the transfer of all data to the ship. The software helps people make sure they’re connecting to the correct ship, using a unique account that’s set up in the cloud with a security protocol. The lessons that IBM learns while the new Mayflower is at sea could trickle down to the technology of recreational boats of all sizes in the future. “You hear about people going in through Wi-Fi to hack a ship’s systems,” says Eric Aquaronne, production strategist at IBM. “This is a safer approach.”

Getting that kind of technology to work in tandem with the artificial intelligence systems that will drive the vessel is a key to the whole project, and possibly to countless technological evolutions that could end up on recreational boats and elsewhere in the future, Phaneuf says. Simply being able to avoid oncoming weather, without any humans on board, requires multiple systems to work together in new ways.

“The AI stuff is really the interesting thing,” Phaneuf says. “We won’t have anybody on the ship, so all this technology can be used to help inform people who use vessels that have these systems being integrated into radars, cameras and AIS.”

And while the thought of an autonomous vessel at sea may give some traditional boaters pause, Phaneuf says the project is intended to make all boaters safer. AI-based systems, to his way of thinking, are better boaters than even the most experienced seamen.

“They are always vigilant,” he says of AI systems. “They never get distracted or frustrated. The weather doesn’t make them feel seasick. They’re like a co-captain saying, ‘Hey, we have a hazard, maybe you haven’t seen it.’ It’s not the unmanned vessel that’s a hazard to people; the people are a hazard to unmanned vessels. The unmanned vessel will always follow the rules.”

According to Phaneuf, researchers are limited in what they know of what’s happening on the water. That’s because there are only so many sleeping berths on so many boats. With the new Mayflower, the only limit on the number of researchers who can access the data is the number of logins and passwords used from shore. “If this satellite technology and autonomy advances on the current trajectory,” he says, “it means thousands or millions of researchers can be involved.”

The plan—assuming the new Mayflower lands safely in Massachusetts—is to do a few more transatlantic journeys and a few cruises up and down the East Coast of the United States. And those trips would be done without any humans on board. “Once we feel like we have a good handle on the boat,” Phaneuf says, “we then plan to do a circumnavigation.” 

This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue.

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