Autonomous Mayflower

Autonomous Mayflower robot boat reaches North America

Image credit: IBM

A crewless robotic boat has retraced the 17th-century sea voyage of the Mayflower, landing in Canada instead of Massachusetts.

In 1620, a ship known as the Mayflower carried a group of English families from England to Plymouth, Massachusetts, leading to the establishment of the first permanent New England colony and the beginning of the history of colonial America. Four centuries later, an autonomous robotic boat has replicated the journey.

The sleek autonomous trimaran docked in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Sunday, after more than five weeks crossing the Atlantic. The 50-feet Mayflower Autonomous Ship was built by ocean research non-profit ProMare and IBM and did not carry any humans on board.

Instead, the ship was piloted by an innovative artificial intelligence technology.

Autonomous Mayflower robot boat reaches North America

Autonomous Mayflower robot boat reaches North America/ ProMare and IBM

Image credit: IBM

“The technology that makes up the autonomous system worked perfectly, flawlessly,” said Rob High, an IBM computing executive involved in the project. “Mechanically, we did run into problems.”

The ship had originally attempted to make the journey in June of 2021. However,  when engineers discovered a metal component of the ship's generator had fractured, causing fuel leakages and leaving the ship with its solar panels as the only source of energy, the robotic boat had to be recalled.

The ship was recalled once again earlier this year, on April 27, when a generator problem diverted it to Portugal’s Azores islands, where a team member flew in to perform emergency repairs. One month later, the Autonomous Mayflower developed a problem with the charging circuit for the generator’s starter batteries.

Autonomous Mayflower robot boat reaches North America

Autonomous Mayflower robot boat reaches North America/ ProMare and IBM

Image credit: IBM

Now, the ship has finally reached its Northern American destination, albeit arriving in Canada instead of Plymouth, as originally planned.

Like the original Mayflower, the boat’s journey has not proceeded as expected, but the team behind it has great plans for the future of the technology.

We’re going to go to the Arctic and we’re thinking about global circumnavigation,” said Brett Phaneuf, Co-founder of ProMare.

At the moment, many of today’s autonomous ships are automated, meaning they rely heavily on operator override and cannot adapt dynamically to new scenarios. The Autonomous Mayflower has demonstrated how using an integrated set of IBM’s AI, cloud and edge technologies, the ships of the future will be able to operate independently in challenging circumstances.

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