An autonomous research ship crossed the Atlantic Ocean — with a few pit stops to address challenges along the way.

What’s new: Built by IBM and marine research nonprofit ProMare, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship 400 (MAS400) last week completed a voyage from Plymouth, England, to Plymouth, Massachusetts.

How it works: The vessel navigates autonomously using a system based on IBM’s Operational Decision Manager, a rules-based system that integrates data from machine learning and other sources to adhere to conventions for maritime navigation. It carries no human crew, but ProMare can control it remotely if necessary.

  • Six cameras equipped with computer vision detect hazards. The team trained the algorithm to recognize other ships, buoys, debris, and land using over one million nautical images.
  • A separate rules-based system detects and responds to nearby ships. It considers input from cameras, radar, sonar, and transceivers that detail other vessels and charts a course in accordance with established maritime rules for avoiding collisions. A safety backstop checks this decision before the ship adjusts its course.
  • The ship also gathers data for scientific purposes. Sensors measure indicators of environmental conditions such as pollution and climate change: the ocean’s temperature, salinity, acidity, fluorescence, and microplastic content. Acoustic sensors record the sounds of whales and dolphins. Accelerometers record wave energy.

Choppy waters: The passage from Plymouth to Plymouth, which originally was scheduled to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of Pilgrims who traveled from England to America to escape religious persecution, ran a year late. It was supposed to take place over three weeks in June 2021, but less than a week into the first attempt, a power issue forced ProMare to guide the vessel back to England for repairs. The second attempt lasted over two months, with two unplanned port calls in the Azores and Nova Scotia to address generator issues and battery defects.

Behind the news: Autonomous vessels are increasingly plying the seven seas.

  • An autonomous cargo ship piloted by technology from Orca AI recently completed a 790-kilometer test off the coast of Japan. An autonomous cargo ship sponsored by Norwegian fertilizer giant Yara International ASA — this one all-electric — began traveling short distances along the coast of Norway in February.
  • Last summer a sail-powered autonomous research ship from Saildrone mapped the sea floor as it traveled from California to Hawaii.

Why it matters: Removing the crews from ships can save space, fuel, and money. The industry has taken notice, and the International Maritime Organization is drafting rules to adapt maritime regulation for autonomous craft.

We’re thinking: Let this ship’s voyage be a lesson: You may encounter setbacks, but persist and you will arrive at your destination — schooner or later.


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