clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Robotic ship aims to retrace the Mayflower’s journey

Four centuries later, this robotic Mayflower has no human crew or passengers and is piloted by artificial intelligence in a project aimed at revolutionizing marine research.

Technicians lower the Mayflower Autonomous Ship into the water at its launch site for its first outing on water since being built in Turnchapel, Plymouth in southwest England. The robot ship on Tuesday began a trans-Atlantic crossing that could take up to three weeks.
Technicians lower the Mayflower Autonomous Ship into the water at its launch site for its first outing on water since being built in Turnchapel, Plymouth in southwest England. The robot ship on Tuesday began a trans-Atlantic crossing that could take up to three weeks.
Alastair Grant / AP

SWANSEA, Wales — Four centuries and one year after the Mayflower departed from Plymouth, England, on a historic sea journey to America, another trailblazing vessel with the same name has set off to retrace the voyage.

This Mayflower, though, is a sleek, modern robotic ship that is carrying no human crew or passengers. It’s being piloted by sophisticated artificial intelligence technology for a trans-Atlantic crossing that could take up to three weeks in a project aimed at revolutionizing marine research.

IBM — which built the cutting-edge, $1.3 million ship with the nonprofit marine research organization ProMare — said the Mayflower Autonomous Ship began its trip early Tuesday.

Charting the path of its 1620 namesake, the Mayflower is set to land at Provincetown on Cape Cod before making its way to Plymouth, Massachusetts.

If successful, it would be the largest autonomous vessel to cross the Atlantic.

The new Mayflower’s journey initially had been set for last year, part of 400th anniversary commemorations of the original ship’s voyage carrying Pilgrim settlers to New England.

Its launch was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, and more recently, by bad weather throughout May, IBM spokesman Jonathan Batty said.

Batty said the delay allowed for the fitting of a unique feature of the ship: an electric “tongue” that can provide instant analysis of the ocean’s chemistry, called Hypertaste.

“It’s a brand new piece of equipment that’s never been created before,” Batty said.

The ship is also carrying mementos from people at either end of the journey, such as rocks, personal photos and books.

The Mayflower project aims to usher in a new age for automated research ships. Its designers hope it will be the first in a new generation of high-tech vessels that can explore ocean regions that are too difficult or dangerous for people to go to.

The 50-foot trimaran, propelled by a solar-powered hybrid electric motor, bristles with artificial intelligence-powered cameras and dozens of onboard sensors that will collect data on ocean acidification, microplastics and marine mammal conservation.