TORONTO — A new Mayflower is set to be unveiled in the U.K. soon — but unlike the famed ship from the history books, there will be no pilgrims on the high-tech research vessel.
In fact, there will be no one on the vessel at all.
This Mayflower is sleek, aerodynamic, powered by wind and solar energy, and being readied for launch in the same English port as the original 1620 ship, which is known for carrying pilgrims across the Atlantic to North America.
The new ship will be the largest-ever autonomous vessel to cross the Atlantic, meaning it’s fully robotic — no humans on board.
“I think the most similar thing between this project and the original 400 years ago was that neither of us are sure we were gonna make it,” Brett Phaneuf, director of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) project, said. “But our risk is much smaller than their risk.”
The ship, led by marine research organization ProMare and supported by IBM, will carry three research pods to remotely gather data on the health of the sea and even listen for whales and dolphins.
It has numerous goals, from proving that autonomous vehicles can make this type of voyage, to allowing researchers to analyze microplastics in water samples collected by the ship.
MAS bears little resemblance to an old-fashioned ship, trading in sails and rigging for a three-pronged, sleek metal design, with a single windsail. It is around 15 metres long, and can travel as fast as 20 knots.
The artificial intelligence that drives it was originally developed for the banking industry, enabling it to “think” and avoid potential hazards.
“So, in a way, this ship actually has more to do with a modern bank than it does with the old Mayflower, to be honest,” Don Scott, Chief Technology Officer of the project, said.
MAS was assembled at a shipyard in Poland. Its trans-Atlantic crossing was supposed to happen this September as a tribute to the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower launch, but it has been delayed because of COVID-19.
“Having autonomous ships where we don’t need to rely on people to be on board, that means that we can continue to do that vital research and collect that really important data,” said Rose Lickorish, an IBM Software developer.
The ship will spend the next six months in sea trials before a planned crossing next spring, from Plymouth, England, to Plymouth, Massachusetts.
The trials will allow researchers to monitor how the cloud-based “AI Captain” handles conditions at sea and the challenges thrown at it.