Autonomous Research Boat Gets Under Way for Transatlantic Voyage

turnchapel wharf
Courtesy Turnchapel Wharf

Published Jun 15, 2021 11:35 PM by The Maritime Executive

The IBM-sponsored autonomous vessel prototype Mayflower has departed the UK, bound on a transatlantic voyage to Plymouth, Massachusetts. 

The AI-enabled, electric-powered vessel was developed by IBM with the non-profit ocean research organization ProMare and a partnership of scientific organizations. It was formally launched in Plymouth, England in September, and after conducting final outfitting and sea trials - and waiting out COVID-related delays and some bad weather - it is now under way. 

The Mayflower measures 15 meters in length and weights five tons, and it has a top speed of 20 knots. It is equipped with a range of scientific instruments to take measurements during its long journey, covering everything from water chemistry to microplastic pollution to whale song. 

The vessel's navigation is powered by a new class of marine AI, underpinned by IBM's automation software, computer vision technology, and Red Hat Open Source software. According to IBM, the vessel's scientific package also leverages AI capabilities to further its mission. 

As the vessel's name suggests, the voyage is intended to honor the 400th anniversary of the 1620 Mayflower voyage, which brought English colonists to North America. If its voyage succeeds, it will be the largest autonomous vessel to ever cross the Atlantic. 

IBM says that the ultimate objective is a network of autonomous research boats, drones and submersibles that are capable of spending months at sea. Other platforms - like the WaveGlider, Saildrone and Hugin Endurance - also demonstrate that function, if at much smaller scale than Mayflower.

The vessel's position, heading and forward-facing camera feed are displayed on the project's site as part of a public-engagement effort. As of Tuesday night, the Mayflower was holding position at an anchorage in the Isles of Scilly.