IBM AI boat to commemorate historic US Mayflower voyage finally lands… in Canada

Nearly two years late and in the wrong country, we welcome our robot overlords


IBM's self-sailing Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) has finally crossed the Atlantic albeit more than a year and a half later than planned. Still, congratulations to the team.

That said, MAS missed its target. Instead of arriving in Massachusetts – the US state home to Plymouth Rock where the 17th-century Mayflower landed – the latest in a long list of technical difficulties forced MAS to limp to Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada. The 2,700-mile (4,400km) journey from Plymouth, UK, came to an end on Sunday.

The 50ft (15m) trimaran is powered by solar energy, with diesel backup, and said to be able to reach a speed of 10 knots (18.5km/h or 11.5mph) using electric motors. This computer-controlled ship is steered by software that takes data in real time from six cameras and 50 sensors. This application was trained using IBM's PowerAI Vision technology and Power servers, we're told.

ProMare, a non-profit organization which promotes maritime research and engineering, worked with IBM to develop the software's deep-learning models, which are said to be capable of recognizing and avoiding navigation hazards such as buoys, debris, other ships, icebergs, narwhals, and – we wonder – the kraken.

But the maritime bot's voyage did not go well. The plan had been to make the crossing in 2020 to mark 400 years since the Mayflower's historic voyage from England, but extended sea trials put paid to that ambition.

The voyage was attempted in 2021, and a mechanical fault ended its journey after three days. In April this year, the team sent the Mayflower back out to sea – to sail from Plymouth, UK, to Washington DC rather than Massachusetts in the US – but it broke down last month and had to be repaired.

Then a decision was made to divert the machine to the Canadian port of Halifax, where it's now chilling out.

The Mayflower almost every American schoolchild learns about was a 100ft (30m) triple-masted wooden vessel with canvas sails. It had a maximum speed of about three knots (5.5km/h or 3.4mph) and took more than two months to complete the legendary journey to Cape Cod. The ship carried 102 passengers and a crew of about 30. Cargo was said to include tools, food, and weapons, as well as some live animals, including dogs, sheep, goats, and poultry.

The robot Mayflower was hoped to help demonstrate that human-free, self-sailing ships are possible. Although the AI software appeared to work fine, it suffered mechanical issues with no one onboard to take care of them.

We therefore wondered last month if the question on the feasibility of autonomous ocean-crossing vessels had now been answered. But of course don't forget the human-free computer-controlled Saildrone Surveyor that crossed the Pacific from San Francisco to Hawaii last July, demonstrating ahead of the Mayflower's eventual success that it is possible. ®

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