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Autonomous Mayflower to attempt Atlantic crossing, again

Second shot after lack of humans to fix simple issue crippled sea vessel

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) is attempting to sail across the Atlantic Ocean with no humans on board again, after it failed three days into its first trip last year.

Named after the 17th century vessel that carried over 100 passengers from England to what is now Massachusetts, the MAS was initially designed to retrace the historic route – but failed at the first attempt. This time, it'll be going from Plymouth, UK to the US capital city Washington DC instead.

The MAS began its 3,000-odd mile journey yesterday. Armed with four computers containing Intel processors, six Nvidia Jetson AGX Xavier GPUs, two Nvidia Jetson Xavier NX boards, and a few other custom chips, the ship processes incoming data from a suite of cameras and sensors with machine learning software. Computer vision algorithms and radar help identify things like shipping containers, cargo ships, or fishing vessels to navigate around obstacles.

If any of its hardware breaks down, however, there's no one around to fix it – which proved to be a problem last time. Modern large ships generally have a human-operated machine shop and a cache of spare parts to install for just these sorts of eventualities.

Still, Promare, a maritime non-profit, and IBM, which helped build the 15-meter autonomous sailboat, are confident it can make the journey by itself. The craft uses GPS to keep track of its path, and takes into account external factors like weather conditions as it motors along.

The MAS relies mostly on its solar-powered engines for propulsion, but has a backup diesel generator just in case. Last time, the ship broke down due to a mechanical issue in that generator that borked the fossil-fuel engine. With only solar power, the ship started slowing down and would eventually have run out of energy. 

Brett Phaneuf, co-director of the project and a previous board member and president at ProMare, told The Register the team had improved the computer vision software and its mechanical systems to make the boat more robust since the failure. The ship was cleaned up, and old kit was replaced to get it back in working condition. 

The MAS project is designed to see how autonomous seafaring technology can support ocean and climate research in the future. As the ship motors to the New World, it'll also be taking water samples to study microplastics and algae and listening out for whales and other marine mammals.

"The [Atlantic] crossing, from our point of view, is not the ultimate goal. But once the vehicle can prove that it can run without problems for this length of time, we can then plan on using it for further science expeditions in remote areas," Ayse Atauz Phaneuf, Promare's current president, told us. "The real gain in all this has been to develop an integrate this technology, and test it on Mayflower."

But before they can think about their next journey, the ProMare team is hoping they'll successfully complete this trip the second time round. "We are confident we'll get a long way across and that we'll make it – but the ocean is the biggest challenge now as there are few other obstacles to overcome once we're out in the deep blue. For the moment the ocean is cooperating and we hope that it continues to do so - fingers crossed," Phaneuf said.

You can watch the ship via a live stream posted here. ®

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