IBM's autonomous Mayflower ship breaks down in second transatlantic attempt

Human-free seafaring isn't going swimmingly


The crewless AI-powered Mayflower ship, which was on its second attempt to cross the Atlantic ocean alone, is being hauled back to shore after suffering a mechanical failure.

The ship, built by ProMare, a non-profit organization focused on marine research, with help from IBM, set off from Plymouth, UK, last month with the goal of reaching Washington DC. But after less than two weeks into the journey, the computer-controlled vessel broke down near Portugal. 

The Mayflower carries numerous cameras and sensors onboard running computer-vision algorithms for navigation. If it suffers a hardware issue, however, there's no one around to fix it. Information on the 15-metre-long vessel's status is shared via an online dashboard, and viewers can track its location and watch live feeds of it sailing. 

A sharp-eyed Reg reader noticed the level on the ship's solar-charged batteries had dropped, and it appeared to be drifting off course, last week. The live streams have since shut down.

Brett Phaneuf, co-director of the Mayflower project and a previous board member and president at ProMare, confirmed to The Register the ship will be pulled ashore. Engineers will try to assess the mechanical breakdown and repair it. "The ship had a little difficulty and we're making a port call to Horta, Azores, to have a look at her and make sure she can make the rest of the journey," he said.

The Mayflower hasn't quite reached Horta yet, so the team isn't sure why it's failing, an IBM spokesperson told us on Wednesday. The vessel's dashboard shows it in Plymouth again, we note, which may just be a result of someone resetting the location on the website to base.

ProMare hopes to fix the mechanical problem and send the vessel back to sea to continue the journey. The glitch appears to stem from the ship's generator, and none of its machine-learning software capabilities have been affected.

It's not the first time the ship's generator has failed. When the Mayflower attempted its first transatlantic voyage in 2021, engineers discovered a metal component of the ship's generator had fractured. Diesel fuel leaked, and without its back-up source of power, it only had its solar panels for energy.

Over time, its speed dropped as its batteries depleted. The ProMare team decided to recall and fix the ship after it spent just three days at sea, and announced it'd have another crack at sailing from England to America the year after. 

Now, its second attempt hasn't gone smoothly, either. At least the ship was at sea for a longer time before this latest mechanical setback.

"More information will follow from IBM and ProMare once we have a chance to catch our breath.  We made it more than 1,200 [nautical miles] in one go and we're going to assess, repair and head back out, but can't say when or more at this time," Phaneuf told us. ®

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