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The Mayflower 2.0

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  • The Mayflower 2.0

    An autonomous ship’s first effort to cross the Atlantic shows the difficulty of the experiment
    Dalvin Brown for The Washington Post

    Just over 400 years after the Mayflower made its revolutionary voyage from England, across the Atlantic Ocean toward the Americas, a futuristic sea vessel with the same name set sail following a similar path. Only this time, there was no captain or crew onboard. Instead, the vessel would use radar to peer into the horizon, artificial intelligence to understand what’s around it and solar panels to power the journey.

    a man flying through the air while riding skis: The Mayflower ship is approximately 50 feet in length.© IBM/IBM The Mayflower ship is approximately 50 feet in length.
    But the so-called “AI Captain” wasn’t equipped to realize the boat was under distress and needed to return to port for help. That order had to come from someone onshore.

    “It’s disappointing,” said Brett Phaneuf, co-founder of the ocean research nonprofit Promare and co-director of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship project. “We still don’t know exactly what happened. But out of an abundance of caution, we have to get her back.”

    IBM and Promare had dispatched the 49-foot autonomous boat into the waters off the coast of Plymouth, England, on Tuesday. The robotic boat was set to traverse the seas alone for the next few weeks until it reached Plymouth, Mass., the town where pilgrim travelers settled in 1620. But overnight Thursday, the ship-shaped android developed a “minor mechanical issue” that was significant enough for Promare to temporarily abort the mission.

    The original Mayflower faced a few false starts too, having to turn around twice for repairs before successfully completing its 66-day transatlantic pilgrimage. The robotic version was 350 miles from its home base, with only 10 percent of the journey completed, when it was instructed to turn around.

    The modern sea trek originally was supposed to begin in 2020, the year marking four centuries since the historic Mayflower crossing. But the coronavirus pandemic curtailed those plans, and the craft underwent trial runs in the interim. Now it’s navigating international waters with no guide boats to get back to port and trying to avoid inclement weather so that engineers can fix it before sending it back out.

    The broader purpose of the endeavor is to collect data related to climate change, plastic pollution and animal conservation for marine scientists. If it’s successful, the high-tech floating gadget should give researchers a way to study the world’s waterways without sending humans out to sea.

    “Studying the ocean can be particularly arduous. It’s lonely, it’s distant, it’s isolated, and it’s fraught with dangers. So it’s not the most efficient way of collecting that data,” said Rob High. High is president and chief technology officer at IBM Edge Computing, a division focused on cloud storage and AI.

    The ship’s original schedule had it pausing in several Eastern U.S. ports, including Washington, as it worked its way to the Southeast this summer. It’s unclear when that’ll happen.

    Cheshire, United Kingdom-based Promare invested roughly $1 million on materials at the project’s outset, while New York-headquartered IBM led the tech- and science-related parts of the effort. More than a dozen other organizations donated equipment and other services.

    So what went wrong? It’s unclear. Early Friday morning, researchers monitoring the voyage realized that the vessel was operating at about half its optimal speed. The issue may be due to a cheap part untethering near the backup diesel engine, Phaneuf said. But it’s hard to know since cameras pointed at the ship’s internal components don’t capture everything.

    “We could probably just go ahead and plod along, but we’re running into the Gulf Stream, we’re running into a couple of storms. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be a big deal. But if you don’t have enough power to keep the boat going through wind currents and waves, we might’ve been stuck out there for a very long time,” Phaneuf added.

    The project is the latest in a series of robotic ship endeavors that hope to one day enhance travel and shipping operations across large bodies of water.

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    While automakers and tech companies try to figure out how to operate autonomous cars on land safely, researchers and engineering companies are working toward the same thing on the sea.

    In April, scientists from Kiel University in Germany unveiled design ideas for a self-piloted ferry meant to work with other forms of local transportation. The Norwegian chemical company Yara has been fine-tuning its battery-powered, supposedly autonomous containership since 2017. The 260-foot vessel was supposed to launch this year, but the pandemic impacted those plans. Rolls-Royce and Intel have also announced plans for an autonomous cargo ship.

    The Mayflower is a triple-hulled vessel that relies on a combination of wind turbines, diesel and solar power to travel across the ocean. Promare hopes it’ll make the roughly 3,200-mile journey to the United States in a few weeks.

    a boat on a body of water: The ship transmits ocean data to scientists on land.© IBM/IBM The ship transmits ocean data to scientists on land.
    The autonomous Mayflower was built to travel without human intervention, though operators can send messages to the boat. If the message doesn’t come through, the robot continues on with its primary missions.

    The ship-shaped floater constantly monitors incoming weather using forecast data from the Weather Company, which IBM owns. It uses six AI cameras and dozens of other sensors to spot and avoid potential hazards, such as animals or other boats. In the months leading to its launch, researchers added an electric “tongue” to “taste” for the ocean’s chemistry and send back information on organic material and microplastic contamination. There are also microphones to pick up whale noises.

    The vessel’s decisions are made by AI Captain software developed by a partnering firm, Marine AI. The boat can’t dock itself, so engineers created a remote control to maneuver it once it approaches landfall. If the mission ever succeeds, the system might one day help guide crewed ships through torturous sea conditions.

    “We can augment the humans responsible for navigation,” High said. “We can assist them in identifying and recognizing hazards that may have gone beyond their notice. We can offer them choices that perhaps they’re not thinking about themselves.”

    The eventual voyage to the United States is estimated to take about three weeks, but can vary depending on weather and the path the AI captain chooses to travel.

    The vessel’s top speed is a bit above eight knots, or 10 mph, which might seem glacial, but is much faster than the original Mayflower, thought to have averaged just 2 mph. The new vessel is made of aluminum, whereas the first was made of wood. The original was also much larger, roughly 100 feet long, and carried more than 100 people.

    The reinvented Mayflower’s expedition is being live-streamed on a dedicated website showing real-time updates about the ship’s location and ocean conditions.

    IBM hasn’t said what will ultimately happen to the robotic ship after its mission is completed. However, the firm has revealed that it wants to build a fleet of autonomous boats someday. “Even if it fails to make it, we still have an opportunity to learn about that,” High said.
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