Self-sailing Mayflower ship to have another crack at Atlantic crossing next year

Big Blue to return to the big blue waves


The Mayflower, the crewless, autonomous ship built with the help of IBM, will try to sail across the Atlantic again next year, after its first attempt failed shortly after it left the UK for the US.

Created by maritime non-profit Promare, the vessel was designed to not only steer itself but also collect data for scientists to study all sorts of stuff from microplastics to whales. The Mayflower was designed to operate autonomously; it has a mixture of cameras, radar sensors, and machine learning software to detect objects in its environment and navigate safely around cargo ships and fishing vessels. It also has GPS to stay on course, and runs on solar power with a diesel generator for getting through rough conditions.

In June, three days into an attempt to sail over 3,000 miles from Plymouth in the UK to its counterpart port Plymouth in Massachusetts, it suddenly malfunctioned, and was brought back to British shores for some engineering attention.

A real-time camera feed onboard the Mayflower was shut down; the breakdown was blamed on a mechanical issue that couldn’t be patched with software. After trying to figure out what went wrong, engineers discovered a metal component of the ship’s generator had fractured.

The mishap caused diesel fuel to leak from the equipment, preventing it from working properly. Without this essential power source, the Mayflower was totally reliant on its solar panels and its speed dropped. Mission control directed the ship to limp back to base. The ship is now at sea again to resume data collection, though it isn’t straying too far away from human support while its software and hardware onboard continues to be tested.

"A coupling component of the hybrid drive system developed a leak," Promare's president, Ayse Atauz Phaneuf, told The Reg. "We previously used a commercially available component, but now we have replaced this with one that we designed and manufactured, so it is purpose built, and will not have the same issue."

“On 7 September 2021, Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) was re-launched to resume its testing and scientific research schedule,” according to a statement on the mission’s official website.

“Science teams associated with the equipment installed on MAS will continue collecting and analysing data in order to establish the methodology of using autonomous platforms for oceanographic surveys and research...Camera and data feeds will be turned back on for the cruises along the UK coast planned for Autumn and Winter. The next attempt for the Atlantic Crossing is planned for Spring 2022.”

The Register has asked IBM for further comment. ®

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