Trimaran design vessel

Mayflower tribute ship to sail the Atlantic unmanned

The Mayflower Autonomous Research Ship will cross the Atlantic without crew, conducting experiments and collecting vital oceanographic data.

A project to build the world’s first full-sized, fully autonomous, unmanned research ship and sail it across the Atlantic is under way at the University of Plymouth. The plan is that the multi-million-pound Mayflower Autonomous Research Ship, or ‘MARS’, will set sail in 2020, marking the 400th anniversary of the original Mayflower voyage from Plymouth, England, to Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA, carrying religious nonconformists to a new life.

MARS is being developed by Plymouth University, maritime drone specialist MSubs and yacht designer firm Shuttleworth Design. After it is built it will go through a year-long testing phase before it sets out on its mission.

“This historic symbolism of a ship crossing the Atlantic was greatly apparent to us,” says Brett Phaneuf, managing director of MSubs. “We began to ask ourselves, what if we could mark that occasion with something transformative; something that referenced that landmark sailing but pushed forward the boundaries of marine technology?”

The fully autonomous vessel, designed to celebrate the last 400 years of shipping, and in anticipation of the next 400 years, will be equipped with wind and solar energy technology to enable the world’s first fully independent voyage across the ocean.

“One of the key aims has always been to ensure the vessel is powered from renewable sources,” says Phaneuf. “There are some significant advancements in both solar panel technology and storage of that energy taking place right now, so we would be looking to tap into that emerging technology.”

While plans are for the MARS to be fully autonomous, strictly speaking, it’s not quite crewless; the ship will be attended by a team of high-tech drones, in a first for the shipping sector.

“There is a recognition that autonomous vehicle technology can help to address the challenges of working in conditions that might be described as dangerous, dull or dirty, but while the terrestrial sector pushes on with drone technology, the shipping industry has not embraced it yet,” says Phaneuf.

The MARS drones will not be responsible for steering the vessel through stormy seas, though: the ship will be equipped with navigation and collision avoidance systems. Rather, the drones will act as autonomous research assistants, collecting oceanographic data and conducting tests during the voyage.

Phaneuf explains: “The vessel will conduct all manner of meteorological, oceanographic and climate data-gathering and research. It is intended to house one or more modular payload bays into which a diverse range of mission equipment will be fitted to support the various research tasks.

“It’s too early to talk specifics, but in time we do envisage the vessel hosting a full suite of metocean sensors to conduct basic but persistent oceanographic, meteorological and climatological research.”

Among those sensors, MSubs plans to use an acoustic Doppler current profiler (ADCP) and Doppler velocity log (DVL) to monitor current, and a conductivity temperature depth (CTD) sensor to measure salinity, temperature and depth. There is also the potential to include deep-water bathymetric equipment, which, Phaneuf says, could prove especially valuable in collecting much-needed data on the deep ocean, particularly in the polar seas.

With optimum conditions, the Atlantic crossing could take as little as 7–10 days; however the researchers say that a longer journey time of 7–10 months, to increase the amount of data collected, could be on the cards.

Plymouth University is looking for commercial sponsors to support the MARS project, which is part of its ‘Shape the Future’ campaign. MARS is also expected to create a number of student internship opportunities.

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