IBM-powered Mayflower robo-ship once again tries to cross Atlantic

Whaddayaknow? It's made it more than halfway to America


The autonomous Mayflower ship is making another attempt at a transatlantic journey from the UK to the US, after engineers hauled the vessel to port and fixed a technical glitch. 

Built by ProMare, a non-profit organization focused on marine research, and IBM, the Mayflower set sail on April 28, beginning its over 3,000-mile voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. But after less than two weeks, the crewless ship broke down and was brought back to port in Horta in the Azores, 850 miles off the coast of Portugal, for engineers to inspect.

With no humans onboard, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) can only rely on its numerous cameras, sensors, equipment controllers, and various bits of hardware running machine-learning algorithms to survive. The computer-vision software helps it navigate through choppy waters and avoid objects that may be in its path.

Its first transatlantic crossing attempt ended in failure due to a mechanical fault with its generator. Thankfully, the technical problem this time around was minor and ProMare and IBM managed to get the ship back out to sea to resume its latest attempt to get to the US.

"ProMare identified the issue as an isolation switch that failed," an IBM spokesperson told The Register. "The IBM technology on board remained functioning as designed and continues to function as designed."

The switch affected the Mayflower's electrical supply system, sapping its power. After the team fixed the issue, they ran tests, refilled its diesel tanks, and waited for good weather to send it back into the ocean. "As of 0900 BST May 20, MAS was back underway with its transatlantic crossing," the IBM spokesperson said. It is aiming to complete the remaining 2,225-mile voyage in 16 days. Now, nearly a week into resuming its journey, the ship has made it to its furthest distance yet, a little over halfway to America. 

The Mayflower's AI software runs on four computers containing Intel processors, six Nvidia Jetson AGX Xavier GPUs, two Nvidia Jetson Xavier NX boards, and a few other chips. Live camera footage streaming from a webcam onboard the ship is back up online for viewers to follow. 

"We've made lots of improvements – the computer vision system has been significantly improved through at-sea testing, and similarly the data fusion algorithms are functioning better and better with every deployment and have greatly improved over the course of the past year," Brett Phaneuf, co-director of the Mayflower project and a former board member and president of ProMare, earlier told The Register in a statement.

"We've also improved many mechanical systems, particularly the air intake and exhaust for the generator on the hybrid drive line – and we've reduced power consumption significantly as well, over the past year, through applied research, testing and trials, and we've made the boat more robust in general." ®

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