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Crippled robotic Mayflower prepares to sail again after mundane mechanical breakdown

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship, seen here at its launch in Plymouth, England, earlier in June, had to be towed back to port after a mechanical problem.
The Mayflower Autonomous Ship, seen here at its launch in Plymouth, England, earlier in June, had to be towed back to port after a mechanical problem.IBM Corp

A high-tech version of the legendary ship Mayflower is headed to Plymouth again. Too bad it’s the wrong Plymouth.

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship, an unmanned vessel fitted with advanced technology from IBM Corp., set out last week to cross the Atlantic, retracing the voyage of the Puritans who landed in Massachusetts 401 years ago. The ship was supposed to arrive in Plymouth, Mass. in early July. But due to a mundane mechanical breakdown, she’s being towed back to the other Plymouth, the one in England, where engineers will try to figure out why the voyage came to such an inglorious end.

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It doesn’t appear the problem was with the fancy computers and sensors that control the robot vessel. Mayflower project leader and Massachusetts native Brett Phaneuf said the electronics worked flawlessly. Instead, the problem seems to be related to a diesel generator.

“My biggest concern with the whole mission was that something stupid would get us, like a gasket or a rudder would jam,” said Phaneuf, managing director of MSUBS Ltd., a UK-based company which makes small submarines for military and commercial use.

Still, he seemed untroubled by the setback. “Boats often break. Our little boat is no exception.”

Phaneuf is also cofounder of ProMare, a nonprofit devoted to oceanic research. In 2016, ProMare launched a plan to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the original Mayflower voyage by building a robotic equivalent capable of making the 3,000-mile sea voyage on its own. ProMare put $1 million into designing and building the boat. It’s received additional backing from multiple sources, including the University of Plymouth and IBM, which is using the ship as a testbed for its artificial intelligence systems.

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship during sea trials in April 2021.
The Mayflower Autonomous Ship during sea trials in April 2021. IBM Corp

Much of this high-end gear is used to steer the ship. It’s controlled by an “AI Captain,” which analyzes data from cameras, radars, GPS satellites, and other data to adjust course and speed, and to avoid running into other ships. The Mayflower is also an oceanic research lab, constantly monitoring the temperature, salt content, and oxygen level of the water, as well as the presence of plastic microparticles, a sure sign of human-caused pollution. It even has microphones that can pick up the sounds made by whales, as a way to track their numbers and movements.

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A fleet of such unmanned boats could someday patrol the world’s oceans for months at a time, providing a vast new source of nautical knowledge. But only if Phaneuf and his team can fix the first one.

The ship was 350 miles at sea, 1/10 of the way to the United States, when it reported that it had insufficient battery power to cruise at its planned speed of seven knots, or about eight miles per hour. Phaneuf’s team surmised the diesel generator had failed and directed the vessel to return to port. At about 100 miles from shore, the ship signaled its batteries were running low and it lacked sufficient solar power to top them off. So the boat was ordered to power down all nonessential systems and wait for a tow.

It’s disappointing, but no surprise to Michael Johnson, founder of Boston-based Sea Machines, which has been designing autonomous ship technology since 2015. Johnson said old-school mechanical breakdowns have sometimes crippled his own company’s high-tech ships.

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“The failure of traditional components does happen and can be troublesome,” said Johnson in an e-mail.

That’s partly because today’s ships are designed on the assumption there will be a crew on board to make repairs. Johnson said that as ships become more autonomous, they’ll be engineered to need less and less human intervention.

Even so, said Johnson, totally automated cargo vessels are a long way off. “The human brain cannot be topped for responding to the unexpected or rare occurrence,” he said. “Let’s set the goal at 99 percent autonomous for the near-term foreseeable future.”

Phaneuf and his team are still committed to getting their Mayflower across the Atlantic with no hands on deck. He said that once they’ve identified and fixed the problem, they’ll set a date for their next attempt.



Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.