A fully autonomous ship tracing the journey of the Mayflower is being built by a UK-based team, with help from tech firm IBM.

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship, or MAS, will launch from Plymouth in the UK in September 2020.

Its voyage will mark the 400th anniversary of the pilgrim ship which brought European settlers to America in 1620.

IBM is providing artificial intelligence systems for the ship.

The vessel will make its own decisions on its course and collision avoidance, and will even make expensive satellite phone calls back to base if it deems it necessary.

The sensor technology guiding its decision-making process includes:

  • Light detecting and ranging (LIDAR)
  • Radio detecting and ranging (RADAR)
  • Global Positioning System (GPS)
  • Satellites
  • Cameras

Data on hundreds of ships has already been collected in Plymouth Sound to feed its machine-learning algorithms.

Pilgrim journey

400 years ago, on 6 September 1620, the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth to Massachusetts, with 102 passengers and around 30 crew members.

The original journey took more than two months, landing at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, on 21 December 1620.

The passengers onboard, mainly Christian Puritans, became known as pilgrims.

This vessel will repeat their journey but without any humans on board, and a much faster anticipated crossing time of two weeks.

The ship is being built by ProMare – a non-profit marine research organisation – along with IBM.

The project’s director, Brett Phaneuf, has ancestral roots in the area where the Mayflower landed on America’s east coast, dating back to 1628.

Mr Phaneuf grew up in New England hearing family folklore about the early settlers, and visiting sites connected to the crossing.

He now lives in Plymouth, UK, and was inspired by his history to contribute to the commemorations of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower.

But he wasn’t interested in building a simple replica of the ship.

“Nothing really was going to do it justice,” Mr Phaneuf says.

“My immediate interest is in autonomy and we needed something that would speak to the next 400 years.”

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