IBM boards Mayflower Autonomous Ship project

Credit: IBM

IBM has joined a global consortium of partners, led by marine research organisation ProMare, that are building an unmanned, fully-autonomous ship that will cross the Atlantic Ocean on the fourth centenary of the original Mayflower voyage in September 2020.

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) will use IBM’s servers, artificial intelligence (AI), cloud, and edge computing technologies to navigate autonomously and avoid ocean hazards as it makes its way from Plymouth, England, to Plymouth, Massachusetts. If successful, it will be one of the first self-navigating, full-sized vessels to cross the Atlantic Ocean and opens the door on a new era of autonomous research ships.

The vessel will carry three research pods containing an array of sensors and scientific instrumentation that scientists will use to advance understanding in a number of vital areas such as maritime cyber security, marine mammal monitoring, sea-level mapping, and ocean plastics. The work will be co-ordinated by the UK’s University of Plymouth with support from IBM and ProMare.

Also on board is the UK’s University of Birmingham, which will be responsible for the use of virtual, augmented, and mixed reality technologies in the MAS mission. Birmingham’s Human Interface Technologies (HIT) Team is leading the development of a Mixed Reality Telepresence Science Station, which will allow school children and members of the public around the world to experience the transatlantic mission.

IBM is helping ProMare to build deep learning models capable of recognising navigation hazards, which come into view in the MAS’s onboard video cameras. Trained on real data and images from the Plymouth Sound in the UK, MAS will be capable of recognising buoys, debris, and other ships and will have constant situational awareness thanks to radio detection and ranging (RADAR), automatic identification system (AIS), and light detection and ranging (LIDAR) – the same technology used in autonomous cars.

When a hazard is detected, MAS will use IBM’s Operational Decision Manager software to help decide autonomously whether to change course or, in case of emergencies, speed out of the way, drawing additional power from its onboard back-up generator. Fusing data from maritime maps, sensors, and weather forecasts, MAS will be able to determine the optimal path and speed it should take across the Atlantic.

During the voyage, edge devices will collect and analyse ship data and store it locally. When satellite connectivity is available, the edge devices will upload it to edge nodes located onshore. ProMare will update the deep learning models and push them out to the ship as required.

The hull of the MAS is currently being constructed in Gdansk, Poland, by Aluship Technology, before being transported to Plymouth, UK, later this year.