IBM backs new autonomous research vessel for historic transatlantic voyage

IBM joins effort to build an autonomous research vessel
IBM joins effort to build an autonomous research vessel

IBM has announced that it is joining an effort to build an autonomous research vessel for an historic transatlantic crossing. In honour of the fourth centennial of the famous voyage of settlers from England to the Americas, it will be named the Mayflower.

The five-ton, wing sail/solar/diesel powered Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) is designed to make 20 knots on its eastbound voyage. Over the course of the 12-day crossing, it will take water samples for research on ocean microplastics, and its sensors will return data on water temperature and nutrient levels. For navigation and collision avoidance, it will be equipped with an inertial guidance system, GPS, radar and LIDAR. With a satcom link to shore and processors on board, it will use IBM’s PowerAI Vision technology to evaluate its surroundings and an IBM Deep Learning-powered collision avoidance system to maintain autonomous safety of navigation.

The vessel’s aluminum and composite trimaran hull is currently under construction at a yard in Gdansk, and it is due for delivery in February. Fitting out and testing should be completed by August, in time for a September 2020 departure – exactly on schedule for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s sailing.

The consortium behind MAS includes Plymouth University, which is responsible for the research instrumentation; Whiskerstay Ltd., the naval architect; Aluship Technology, the shipbuilder; M Subs Ltd, a manned/unmanned submarine specialist; ProMare, a non-profit group coordinating the effort; and Gard, the insurer. IBM will provide the autonomy engine, the vessel’s “brain.” The project has backing from the Plymouth City Council and from local business leaders, who see it as a way to celebrate the centenary of the Mayflower voyage and the history of Plymouth.

“Putting a research ship to sea can cost tens of thousands of dollars or pounds a day and is limited by how much time people can spend onboard – a prohibitive factor for many of today’s marine scientific missions,” said Brett Phaneuf, a ProMare board member and co-director of the project. “With [MAS], we are pioneering a cost-effective and flexible platform for gathering data that will help safeguard the health of the ocean and the industries it supports.”

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