Groundbreaking! The world’s 1st autonomous ship prepares for its inaugural sail

By Amirtha P S, Desk Reporter
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Mayflower 400
The Mayflower 400 is the world's first autonomous ship.

The world’s first unmanned ship, the “Mayflower 400” is preparing to embark on its maiden journey on May 15, after the delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

If the weather is favorable and permission is granted by British authorities as expected the 15-meter trimaran (multihull boat), which weighs nine tonnes and navigates with complete autonomy will make its transatlantic voyage to Plymouth, England.

As per the team of Mayflower 400, during the journey, the vessel will study marine pollution and analyze plastic in the water, as well as track aquatic mammals to shed light into the eighty percent of the underwater world which remains unexplored.

The vessel which is covered in solar panels has used a variety of technology and service which was contributed to the project by hundreds of individuals from nations including India, Switzerland and the US.

Rosie Lickorish, a specialist in emerging technologies at IBM, one of the partners on the project, said “the unmanned craft provided an advantage in the unforgiving environment. Having a ship without people on board allows scientists to expand the area they can observe.”

Ms. Lickorish further explained that the boat’s artificial intelligence (AI) will be pivotal in conducting scientific experiments as “it was trained with hundreds of hours of audio data, to detect the presence of marine mammals and tell us something about population distributions out in the open ocean.”

Brett Phaneuf, the co-founder of the charity ProMare and the mastermind behind the Mayflower project, said the project would have cost 10 times the roughly $1 million invested by ProMare without the global effort.

Construction of the trimaran, which is automated from the robotic rudder that steers it to the diesel generator that supplements its solar power, took a year. Developing the onboard artificial intelligence (AI) which is its “smart captain” took more time, as the computer has had to learn how to identify maritime obstacles by analyzing thousands of photographs.

Lack of regulations

The autonomous vessel had to be trained on how to avoid collisions and it was first taken to sea for supervised learning. “By running several scenarios the ship can learn what are good actions, bad actions, so safe and unsafe. And if it makes a mistake, the boat can correct itself and then learn itself,” Ollie Thompson, robotics and software engineer said.

The ship will use its sophisticated system of six cameras and radar, which acts as its eyes and ears, to continue learning on its own. Due to the lack of regulations around unmanned sailing, the Mayflower 400 needs to be tested in rough seas or storms. However, in a simulated setting, the robotic craft has faced 50-meter waves.

Similar to the robotic data collection method, which has been used in space for decades, the ship is also missioned to analyze the chemical composition of the water, measuring sea levels and collecting samples of microplastics.

Even though the ship is completely autonomous, the team will monitor the ship 24 hours a day from England, ready to intervene remotely in case of danger.

Related: Right move: Maersk accelerates plan to operate vessels powered by carbon-neutral fuel