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IBM's self-sailing Mayflower suffers another fault in Atlantic crossing bid

If the idea was to see if a ship could make it without any humans, we think we may have the answer by now

No, this isn't deja vu. IBM's self-sailing Mayflower ship, tasked with making it across the Atlantic without any humans onboard to help, has suffered another mechanical glitch preventing it from continuing its intended journey.

Named after the vessel that brought passengers from England to America in the 17th century, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) was expected to retrace that historical voyage. But its attempts to cross the ocean, led by ProMare – a non-profit organization focused on marine research, with support from IBM – haven't exactly gone smoothly.

We admire the tenacity and the project's aims but we're not going to pretend this has been perfect.

The first attempt last year ended in failure. In April this year, the team sent the Mayflower back out to sea – to sail from Plymouth, UK, to Washington DC in the US – but it broke down briefly last month and had to be repaired.

Now, just over a week after the most recent fix, it appears to have malfunctioned yet again at sea. Armed with just cameras and sensors and computers onboard running computer-vision algorithms and other control software, there is no human around to steer let alone repair components if it encounters mechanical issues. Instead, the Mayflower has to be picked up by engineers to inspect.

In this latest twist of the saga, the Mayflower will limp to Nova Scotia, Canada, rather than direct to the US capital, after suffering an electrical fault. The ship may continue on its way to Washington DC if it can be repaired in Canada.

"Over the May 28-29 weekend, MAS developed an issue with the charging circuit for the generator starter batteries," an IBM spokesperson told The Register in a statement.

"On May 30, the team had to switch to the back-up navigation PC. The IBM technology on board remains functioning as intended. ProMare made the decision to divert to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, to investigate further."

The live stream documenting the Mayflower's status and whereabouts show the craft making its way to shore and is expected to reach Nova Scotia's capital Halifax by the weekend, we're told. "The team is continuing to stress all systems to their limit and are learning a tremendous amount about how to design, build, and operate autonomous vessels," the spokesperson added.

We guess everything's a learning experience.

All of the ship's mechanical issues so far stem from its generator system. The first glitch that cut its transatlantic voyage short stemmed from a mechanical issue that caused its backup diesel fuel reserves to leak. The Mayflower was unable to rely solely on solar power.

The second mishap that occurred last month was more minor; an isolation switch on the generator failed, robbing it of electrical energy. Now, there's something wrong with the generator's starter battery charging circuit.

After the ship was patched up and sent back to sea on May 20, the ProMare team thought it would be able to make it to the US in 16 days. Given the current setback, it seems unlikely the Mayflower will reach its destination in Washington DC during that time.

The Register has asked ProMare for further comment. ®

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