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THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE

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1040 Abroad

Unmanned £1m robotic ship sets sail from Plymouth to USA

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship was created by ProMare, IBM, Marine AI and M Subs and pilots tech which could revolutionize shipping
By News Team
Published on June 17, 2021

Mayflower Autonomous Ship Mayflower Autonomous Ship PHOTO: TWITTER.COM/AI_MAYFLOWER

A £1m robotic ship has set sail from Plymouth and is making its way across the Atlantic Ocean to mark 400 years since the Mayflower sailed for America.

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) is a 15m long, aluminum-hulled trimaran, which is bristling with the latest sensors and AI (artificial intelligence).

It left Plymouth at 4am on June 15 and within a day had reached the Isles of Scilly as part of its trailblazing voyage from Plymouth to Cape Cod in the USA.

The vessel has no-one on board, being piloted remotely from the UK and USA and collecting vital data about climate change, plastic waste pollution and marine mammals on its maiden voyage of discovery.

The multi-national team which has created the solar-powered ship says it is a true “game changer”, the largest unmanned vessel created to date, and likely to blaze a trail which will lead to other, larger, ships and ports too, becoming unmanned.

It is the brainchild of non-profit marine research organization ProMare working with computing giant IBM, and Plymouth firms M Subs and Marine AI.

Before dawn on June 15, Plymouth’s Turnchapel Wharf tweeted: “Quietly and peacefully, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship slipped her lines at homeport Turnchapel to begin her Atlantic voyage.”

A day later, James Sutton, a software engineer at IBM, tweeted: “Yesterday the MAS travelled roughly 250km and is currently taking a short break at St Mary’s on the Isles of Scilly.”

Brett Phaneuf, managing director of M Subs, told Business Live: “The word excited does not cover it.”

The vessel’s entire voyage is being recorded and people can check up on it in real time by clicking here.

MAS took four years to build and is relatively low cost and a key step in the eventual roll out of more autonomous vessels. It was created in Plymouth, involving the University of Plymouth and city companies, and entering the water off the Barbican for the first time in September 2020 where it was officially named by US Embassy ambassador Robert Wood “Woody” Johnson, who Christened it with Plymouth Gin.

The MAS project was started in 2016 and has involved input from engineers and scientists in Plymouth, the USA, and Norway. The modular vessel was built in a shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, when no British shipyard was able to take on the project.

It was shipped in pieces to Plymouth in the early weeks of the 2020 coronavirus lockdown and assembled, safely, at the M Subs factory at Estover.

That firm’s daughter company Marine AI created the computer technology that has been installed on board and on land in partnership with global tech giant IBM.

It uses a Power 9 AC 922 server, about the same size as an old-style VCR box, which links with the cameras and sensors on the vessel, effectively teaching them how to identify boats and objects in the sea and navigate around them without a human being involved.

It has now set off to navigate the 3,220 nautical miles between the UK and Massachusetts. Travelling at between eight and nine knots the journey is expected to take two to three weeks.

IBM has created the AI vision system which will give MAS “eyes at sea”, using its sensors and cameras to identify vessels and objects from an image bank of thousands of items and then work out how to navigate around them.

MAS will also “taste” the water, checking for chemicals in it and looking for micro plastics, and will even be able to listen for whale song, and identify pods of whales from their calls.

And the technology and engineering on MAS is likely to pave the way for future robotic shipping and even unmanned ports. Already the concept is being suggested for water taxis, research vessels, fish farming, and even large cargo ships.

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