Self-Driving Mayflower Ship Forced to Turn Back

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Plymouth, England —(Map)

A self-driving ship named after the Mayflower has been forced to turn back as it tried to re-create the cross-Atlantic trip made by the original Mayflower in 1620. The group behind the effort says the journey will begin again soon.

Last Tuesday, a robotic ship called the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) took off from Plymouth, England. Its mission was to re-create the 1620 crossing of the Atlantic by the original Mayflower, which brought the first group of European settlers to what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Mayflower Autonomous Ship leaving on its first cross-Atlantic trip.

But unlike the original Mayflower, there are no people on the MAS. Everything about the ship is designed to run automatically. The ship is guided by an artificial intelligence (AI) system called “AI Captain”.

The MAS is a project run by a group called ProMare along with the computer company, IBM. The ship’s electric motor is powered by solar energy with a diesel generator for backup.

IBM Researchers Rosie Lickorish and James Sutton at work on MAS, April 2021.

The goal of the project is to test different kinds of technologies for collecting information about the sea. If these can be handled by machines, it could be a big advance in ocean research. Sending humans to collect information at sea can be difficult, lonely, and dangerous.

Because the MAS didn’t have to carry humans, its designers were free to think about how to make the best ship for the job. What they came up with was a 49-foot (15-meter) “trimaran”, which has three floating sections.

Mayflower Autonomous Ship during sea trials in March, 2021.

In addition to cameras and radar to help the ship guide itself, the ship is carrying many different kinds of tools and sensors. It has special listening devices which can detect whales and dolphins. It even has a special “tongue” which can report back on the chemicals in the water.

But even though the ship is able to guide itself completely, it was humans, rather than the AI Captain that decided to turn the MAS around.

Last Friday morning, scientists tracking the ship noticed that it was going about half as fast as it should have been going. The AI Captain was working well, but there seemed to be something slowing the motor down.

Mayflower Autonomous Ship leaving on its first cross-Atlantic trip.

Since the ship had only covered 10% of the way across the Atlantic, the team decided to bring it back to Plymouth so they could fix the problem and send it out again. They sent the MAS instructions to turn back.

When the MAS finally does put out to sea again, it is expected to take about three weeks to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The entire trip will be about 3,500 miles (5,630 kilometers).

Mayflower Autonomous Ship

The fastest speed for the MAS is about 10 mph (16 kph). That may seem slow, but it’s about 5 times faster than the original Mayflower, which took 66 days to make the journey.

Did You Know…?
The original Mayflower was also forced to turn around more than once because of problems with another ship that was sailing with it.


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