A fully autonomous ship tracing the journey of the Mayflower is being built by a UK-based team, with help from tech firm IBM.
The vessel will make its own decisions on its course and collision avoidance, and will even make expensive satellite phone calls back to base if it deems it necessary.
The sensor technology guiding its decision-making process includes:
- Light detecting and ranging (LIDAR)
- Radio detecting and ranging (RADAR)
- Global Positioning System (GPS)
400 years ago, on 6 September 1620, the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth to Massachusetts, with 102 passengers and around 30 crew members.
This vessel will repeat their journey but without any humans on board, and a much faster anticipated crossing time of two weeks.
The ship is being built by ProMare – a non-profit marine research organisation – along with IBM.
The project’s director, Brett Phaneuf, has ancestral roots in the area where the Mayflower landed on America’s east coast, dating back to 1628.
The vessel will run on solar and wind power, with an emergency diesel backup generator if needed.
“The ship is going to do oceanographic research but it is also an active test platform for artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms for collision avoidance,” he says.
A future of autonomous vessels roaming across the world’s oceans brings up several issues around insurance, cyber-security and piracy.
Mr Phaneuf says this first voyage is being insured by insurance company Gard, which wanted to be the first company to insure an unmanned ocean vessel.
The main threat in the North Atlantic, he says, will come from the weather and the ocean conditions, rather than other vessels.
But not knowing what the ship will find is an exciting prospect.
“We know more about the surface of the moon than the surface of the ocean. This is the first of many ships that will bring us to that state of knowledge,” Mr Phaneuf says.