IBM launches autonomous ship with a trans-Atlantic crossing scheduled in 2021


The research vessel pushed off from Plymouth, England; a nod to the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s historic trip.

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Image: IBM

As we reported in August, artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous vessels are set to revolutionize the shipping industry in the years ahead. AI-guided ships instrumented with a suite of sensors could become the seafaring standard in the not-so-distant future. These highly sophisticated vessels exist in stark comparison to the wooden sailing ships of centuries past.

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To mark the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower launch in 1620, IBM in partnership with oceanic research nonprofit ProMare, have launched an AI-enabled robotic research ship with some 21st century cargo in tow.

IBM and ProMare recently announced the launch of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS), an autonomous trimaran research vessel. On Wednesday, the ship pushed off from the coastal waters of Plymouth, England, where, in 1620, the Mayflower set sail for America. The launch followed two years of construction as well as training to fine-tune the AI models. The ship’s “AI captain” is able to “sense” its environment and make critical decisions while navigating the oceans without crew or a traditional human captain onboard.

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“Able to scan the horizon for possible hazards, make informed decisions and change its course based on a fusion of live data, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship has more in common with a modern bank than its 17th century namesake,” said Andy Stanford-Clark, CTO at IBM UK & Ireland in a press release. “With its ability to keep running in the face of the most challenging conditions, this small ship is a microcosm for every aspiring 21st century business.”

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Image: IBM

Overall, MAS was engineered to enable a new safe and cost-effective approach to ocean research. The vessel will allow researchers to gain insights related to global warming, animal conservation, and the accumulation of oceanic microplastics. 

To coincide with the launch, IBM and ProMare also announced a web portal allowing people around the world to follow along with MAS as the vessel continues its research missions in the months ahead. Officially known as the mas400 portal, the platform will provide real-time updates about MAS’ journey including vessel location, conditions at sea, and information pertaining to ongoing research projects.

The autonomous vessel will also carry a “stowaway octopus chatbot” known as Artie, “who claims to be hitching a ride on the ship.” IBM created Artie in partnership with startup Chatbotbay. During the voyage, the stowaway will provide additional details about the ship’s journey “in a lively, and accessible format.”

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“Protecting the ocean depends on our ability to engage the public in important matters affecting its health. This MAS400 portal is designed to do exactly that and tell people where the ship is, what speed it’s travelling at, what conditions it’s operating in and what science we are conducting,” said Fredrik Soreide, scientific director of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship project in a press release. 

“Users can even help Artie the Octopus fish out surgical masks, cigarette butts and other increasingly common forms of ocean litter from a virtual ocean of facts and data,” Soreide continued.

The autonomous ship will be involved in sea trials and research projects for the next six months. Next spring, MAS will attempt a trans-Atlantic crossing. As a nod to its namesake and its hortic quadricentennial, MAS’ voyage will “be based on a similar route and pioneering spirit to the 1620 Mayflower which made the same crossing 400 years ago.” 

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