It’s more than a year late, but a robotic 21st century version of the ship that brought the Pilgrims to Massachusetts has finally landed.
The Mayflower Autonomous Ship arrived in Plymouth Harbor Thursday after a voyage of 40 days and 3,500 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, made virtually without human aid. The ship was designed by nautical research company Promare and stuffed with computers, sensors and artificial intelligence software from IBM Corp.
The five-ton, 50-foot-long, triple-hulled ship was built in 2020 as a floating testbed for seagoing AI technology, but also to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the original Mayflower. The ship first attempted the crossing one year ago, but was forced back to its home port in Plymouth, UK, after a diesel generator failure. It renewed the voyage in April of 2022, but an electrical defect forced it to divert first to the Azores islands and later to Halifax, Nova Scotia for repairs. In both cases, human operators didn’t steer the ship to these unplanned destinations via remote control. They just transmitted the new coordinates to the Mayflower via satellite radio and the ship figured out for itself how to get there.
A boat from Sea Tow South Shore of Marshfield hauled the Mayflower the last 20 miles of its journey, because US Coast Guard regulations don’t allow ships to sail into port without a human in charge.
Rob High, IBM’s chief technology officer for networking and edge computing, said the success of the voyage could someday spawn fleets of unmanned research ships to survey the world’s oceans. It could also lead to the partial automation of cargo shipping, not to eliminate human sailors, but to make their lives easier. “It’s about augmenting the human mind,” High said.
But High said the benefits of the experiment could also lead to more advanced AI systems for other complex tasks like financial planning and supply chain management. “Today is exciting because of what tomorrow will bring,” said High. “This voyage is only just beginning.”