The Mayflower 400 will be the first unmanned vessel to navigate its way across the Atlantic Ocean this month.

First intelligent ship sails across Atlantic May 15


Fred Ojiegbe, with agency reports

World’s first intelligent ship powered mainly by renewable energy will begin trans-Atlantic navigation from Europe to America by next month if the weather condition and official approvals permit project promoters to launch the programme.

The robotic autopilot ship, called Mayflower 400, would relive the sailing experience of the original Mayflower which took settlers from England to North America some 400 years ago.

The Mayflower 400 will be the first unmanned vessel to navigate its way across the Atlantic Ocean this month.

With expected permission from British authorities and clement weather, the automarine is scheduled to embark on May 15 the replicate the voyage made by pilgrims on the original “Mayflower” in 1620 as they sought a new life in America. The three week journey is expected to seek the green robotic vessel berth in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

This time however, the mission is different: to conduct a comprehensive environmental survey that would also study marine pollution, analyze plastic in the water and track aquatic mammals as environmentalists work to reduce exploration gap in the underwater world from current 80 percent.

Other missions programmed for the 50 foot self navigating ship which weighs some 9.0 tons include analyzing the chemical composition of the water, measuring sea levels and collecting samples of micro-plastics. Similar robotic data collection has been ongoing in space for decades.

The “Mayflower 400” would be the first intelligent ship on such a mission. Moreso, the ship would be working for scientists seeking better understanding of the world’s marine environment while delivering least impact while sailing the oceans.

A pool of scientists collaborating on the mission ensured a hybrid of expertise in design and development of Mayflower 400. A variety of technology and service providers contributed to the project with hundreds of individuals involved from nations including India, Switzerland and the United States, said Phaneuf.

The international collaboration relieved ProMare some 90 percent of the full project cost, crashing full cost value from about $10 million to just $1.0 million.

In the spirit if the collaboration, data gathered by the project would be shared free as it could be useful to the future of commercial shipping.

Co-founder of the charity ProMare and the mastermind behind the Mayflower project, Brett Phaneuf, said the ocean exerts “the most powerful force” on the global climate.

Specialist in emerging technologies at IBM, Rosie Lickorish, said the unmanned craft provided an advantage in the “unforgiving environment,” explaining that “having a ship without people on board allows scientists to expand the area they can observe.”

The vessel is mainly solar powered and is equipped with hydrophone designed to listen to whales. The intelligent ship is automated from the robotic rudder that steers it to the diesel generator that supplements its solar power, and its construction took a year.

Developing its “smart captain”, the onboard artificial intelligence, took even longer as the computer has had to learn how to identify maritime obstacles by analysing thousands of photographs.

The “Mayflower 400” also had to be taught how to avoid collisions and first went to sea for “supervised learning”.

Robotics and software engineer Ollie Thompson said that by running a “number of scenarios” the ship can learn “what are good actions, bad actions, so safe and unsafe”.

So if it makes a mistake, the boat can correct itself “and then learn itself,” he added.

The automated vessel uses a sophisticated system of six cameras and radar  to continue learning on its own.

Because of a lack of regulations around unmanned sailing, the Mayflower 400 is yet to be tested in rough seas or storms, a situation Jenking-Rees described as a “worst case scenario”.

In simulated settings, however, the robotic craft has faced 50-metre waves.

People involved in the project said tyhat the boat’s artificial intelligence will be pivotal in conducting scientific experiments.

In addition, the vessel is trained with hundreds of hours of audio data to detect the presence of marine mammals, recognize the marine mammals, and actually explain the population distributions out in the open ocean.

While the ship is totally autonomous, the team will monitor the ship 24 hours a day from England, ready to intervene remotely in case of danger.


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