Drone ship ‘Mayflower’ prepares for historic scientific voyage

It’s been just over 400 years since the original Mayflower dropped anchor near the tip of what is now Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in late November of 1620. Now, a new Mayflower – substantially updated, of course – will embark on a new voyage of discovery.

First, a quick review. The original Mayflower was at sea for what must have been a grueling 10 weeks, carrying a group of religious families – 102 passengers and roughly 30 crew – from England to the new “Promised Land.” These Pilgrims were seeking religious freedom and a new life. Their first winter was a harsh one, and many of the Pilgrims perished during that season. But with the help of First Nations peoples, the Pilgrims learned to farm and forage, celebrating their first Thanksgiving alongside those indigenous people who helped them in the fall of 1621. There’s much more to the story, of course, and if you’re hankering for a quick history briefing, you can check out more here.

Now, let’s get into the new Mayflower.

It’s a drone ship

That’s really the headline — a drone ship… with no person onboard. Details of the coming voyage were discussed during a keynote at the XPONENTIAL conference this week. We were busy with another session, so we didn’t hop in, but conference organizers AUVSI wrote up the presentation, which we link to here and have used as a starting point.

The presenter was Andy Stanford-Clark, CTO of IBM United Kingdom. Stanford-Clark explained this is very much not some land-operated R/C boat. With machine learning and built-in AI, it’s very much the master of its own destiny.

“This isn’t a human-in-the-loop thing … with two joysticks steering it like a big radio-controlled boat,” he said. “Once we sail away from the port, the AI captain is in complete command of the vessel.”

The boat

As you’ve guessed by now, the new ship is called the Mayflower Autonomous Ship, or MAS. And it’s about to embark on a pretty serious mission. Here’s a synopsis from its website:

The World Ocean contains more than half of all life on Earth, covers over 70 percent of its surface and contains 97percent of its water. It regulates the Earth’s climate and acts as a crucial sink of excess heat and carbon. If we want to protect it, we have to understand it. If we want to understand it, we need more data about it. The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) is a grass roots initiative led by marine research non-profit ProMare with support from IBM and a global consortium of partners. Working in tandem with oceanographers and other vessels, MAS provides a flexible, cost-effective and safe option for gathering critical data about the ocean. It can spend long durations at sea, carrying scientific equipment and making its own decisions about how to optimize its route and mission.


Andy Stanford-Clark outlined the mission during the keynote. Of interest is the fact that some of the preparation has involved capturing images of things Mayflower might encounter on her voyage: icebergs, flocks of birds on the water, other ships – and more. Plus, the AI captain had to be supplemented with software he calls the “operational decision manager” – which includes some of the maritime rules that govern how ships operate. For example, there are specific rules around Right of Way:

“So the operational decision manager takes the proposed route from the AI captain and says, “OK, good so far, but you’re planning to pass in front of that ship. Actually, the rules say you have to pass behind it to safety. So I’ve changed your route,'” Stanford-Clark explained.

The goal is to let the ship cruise autonomously, with no human intervention. However, Stanford-Clark and others will be watching closely and are ready to take the wheel if something goes awry.

“It’s a success if we try,” said Brett Phaneuf, co-founder of ProMare, during a subsequent XPONENTIAL session. “There’s no assurance of a successful crossing. We’re certainly not going to let it be involved in a collision, so if we believe that’s going to happen, I’m willing to (intervene). But other than that … we don’t want to lose the vessel, but it’s a risk we’re willing to take to learn about the limits of the vessel’s capability and the software that we’ve built.”

Getting ready for launch

The cost of the 16-metre vessel has been roughly £1M. Of course, you don’t need sleeping cabins, washrooms, or a cooking area when there’s no one on board. To build a crewed vessel with similar capabilities would obviously cost much, much more.

And wow…this really looks like a slick project:

We wish Mayflower a successful voyage – and anticipate seeing more research vessels like this in the near future.

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