Global tech firm IBM joins Mayflower Autonomous Ship project

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (Images: Bob Stone, Human Interface Technology Team, University of Birmingham)

International technology giant IBM has signed up to work with the University of Plymouth and other partners on an ambitious project to sail an unmanned ship across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) will begin its journey in September 2020, commemorating the 400th anniversary of its namesake’s journey to North America.

A consortium, led by marine research organisation ProMare, is overseeing the building of the vessel, with the hull currently being constructed in Gdansk, Poland by Aluship Technology, before being transported to Plymouth by early next year.

It will use IBM’s servers, AI, cloud and edge computing technologies to navigate autonomously and avoid ocean hazards as it makes its way from Plymouth, England to Plymouth, Massachusetts.

If successful, it will be one of the first self-navigating, full-sized vessels to cross the Atlantic and opens the door on a new era of autonomous research ships.

The vessel will carry three research pods containing an array of sensors and scientific instrumentation that scientists will use to advance understanding in a number of vital areas.

That work is being overseen by the University, with support from IBM and ProMare, and will be targeted at fields including maritime cyber security, marine mammal monitoring, sea level mapping and ocean plastics.

Professor Richard Thompson, OBE, Director of the Marine Institute and Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit, said:

“Microplastics is a significant threat to our oceans and our research, in collaboration with IBM, from the autonomous vessel will help to further a deeper understanding of this global issue and ways in which it can be addressed. With over 700 species coming into contact with marine litter and it being found from the poles to the equator, greater understanding is critical. 

“We will also have to rethink how we carry out some of the research, which is one of the challenges and also opportunities that the autonomous vessel presents and we welcome IBM’s support in this endeavour. This will build on the University’s world renowned track record in leading on marine litter research and we welcome the research highlighted by IBM that illustrates the significant concern that this issue represents.”

Andy Stanford-Clark, Chief Technology Officer at IBM UK, added:

“IBM helped mankind land on the moon and is excited by the challenge of using advanced technologies to cross and research oceans. By providing the brains for the Mayflower Autonomous Ship, we are pushing the boundaries of science and autonomous technologies for the good of the world.”

Brett Phaneuf, Founding Board Member of ProMare and Director of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship project, said:

“Putting a research ship to sea can cost tens of thousands of dollars or pounds a day and is limited by how much time people can spend onboard – a prohibitive factor for many of today’s marine scientific missions. With this project, we are pioneering a cost-effective and flexible platform for gathering data that will help safeguard the health of the ocean and the industries it supports.”