American information technology company IBM has joined a global consortium of partners, led by marine research organization ProMare, which is building an unmanned, fully-autonomous ship that will cross the Atlantic in September 2020.
A new Mayflower will set sail 400 years after the historic voyage, this time using AI and other advanced technologies.
The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) will use IBM’s AI, advanced servers, cloud and edge computing technologies to navigate autonomously and avoid ocean hazards as it makes its way from Plymouth, England to Plymouth, Massachusetts. During the 12-day voyage, the ship will be powered mainly by wind and solar energy.
If successful, it will be one of the first self-navigating, full-sized vessels to cross the Atlantic Ocean and will open the door on a new era of autonomous research ships.
“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,” Brett Phaneuf, a Founding Board Member of ProMare and Co-Director of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship project, said.
“With this project, 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.”
The vessel will carry three research pods containing an array of sensors and scientific instrumentation that scientists will use to advance understanding in a number of vital areas such as maritime cybersecurity, marine mammal monitoring, sea level mapping and ocean plastics. The work will be coordinated by the University of Plymouth, the UK, which is at the forefront of marine and maritime research, with support from IBM and ProMare.
Ocean Plastics – A Major Concern
The University of Plymouth will lead research to advance understanding about plastics in the ocean, analyzing water samples from MAS as it sails across the Atlantic to understand more about the origin, distribution and potential impact of microplastics in the ocean.
According to Professor Richard Thompson, OBE, Director of the Marine Institute, University of Plymouth “microplastics present a substantial challenge to our oceans. Over 700 species come into contact with marine litter which is found from the poles to the equator, and estimates are that the quantity of plastic in the oceans will triple in the decade to 2025.”
“The Mayflower Autonomous Ship gives us the opportunity to rethink how to collect data and further our understanding of this global issue,” Thompson added.
Also coming on board is the UK’s University of Birmingham which will be responsible for the use of virtual, augmented and mixed reality technologies in the MAS mission. Birmingham’s Human Interface Technologies (HIT) Team is leading the development of a Mixed Reality Telepresence Science Station which will allow the public to experience the transatlantic mission.
AI and Other Advanced Technologies at the Helm
IBM is helping ProMare to build deep learning models capable of recognizing navigation hazards which come into view in MAS’s onboard video cameras. Trained on real data and images from the Plymouth Sound in the UK, MAS will be capable of recognizing hazards such as buoys, debris and other ships and will have constant situational awareness thanks to RADAR, AIS and LIDAR – the same technology used in autonomous cars.
When a hazard is detected, MAS will use IBM’s software to help decide autonomously whether to change course or, in case of emergencies, speed out of the way drawing additional power from its onboard back-up generator. Fusing data from nautical maps, sensors and weather forecasts, MAS will be able to determine the optimal path and speed it should take across the Atlantic.
During the voyage, edge devices will collect and analyze ship data and store it locally. When connectivity is available, it will be uploaded to edge nodes located onshore. ProMare and IBM experts will update the deep learning models and push them out to the ship as required.
The hull of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship is currently being constructed and outfitted in Gdansk, Poland by Aluship Technology, before being transported to Plymouth later this year.
Once completed, the ship will have a length of 15 meters, a weight of 5 tons and a speed of 20 knots.