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Will this robotic Mayflower make history, too?

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship, shown in computerized imagery, is being built at a Polish shipyard.University of Birmingham Human Interface Technologies Team

A new version of the famed ship Mayflower is scheduled to sail from Plymouth in the United Kingdom to Plymouth, Mass., next September, in time for the 400th anniversary of the original voyage in 1620.

But this Mayflower won’t carry seasick pilgrims, exhausted sailors, or anybody else. The modern Mayflower will be a seagoing robot, designed to sail to the United States entirely on its own.

A Massachusetts-born entrepreneur, Brett Phaneuf, has joined forces with Britain’s University of Plymouth and IBM Corp. to design the Mayflower Autonomous Ship, now under construction in a Polish shipyard. If it performs as planned, it will prove that self-driving ships are well on their way to mastering the toughest nautical tasks, from scientific research to international trade.


Phaneuf, an archeology graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, went on to study marine archeology at Texas A&M University. He’s president of Submergence Group, a company that makes miniature submarines for military and commercial use. The company is based in Plymouth, England, the Mayflower’s home port.

Phaneuf learned that town officials wanted to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s voyage. They considered building a faithful replica of the original ship. But that had already been done: The Mayflower II, built in the United Kingdom in 1956, recently completed three years of renovation work in Mystic, Conn., and will sail back to Massachusetts next year.

Besides, Phaneuf said, the Pilgrims were adventurers who looked to the future, not to the past. “What will the next 400 years look like?” he asked. “What will the maritime enterprise be, going forward?”

ProMare, a nonprofit marine research foundation that Phaneuf cofounded, provided about $1 million in financing for the project. The new Mayflower was designed by the British naval architecture firm Whiskerstay. It’s a futuristic, triple-hull design, about half the length of the original Mayflower.


It’s being made of aluminum and carbon fiber, and at five tons will be much lighter than the 180-ton original.

The ship will be electrically powered with onboard solar cells. There’s also a “wingsail,” which is just what it sounds like: a sail shaped like an airplane wing that provides an extra push from the wind.

If all else fails, the ship will be driven by a backup diesel generator.

The trip should take 12 days, compared to about 60 for the first Mayflower.

IBM came aboard the project 18 months ago, to develop the artificial intelligence system that will guide the Mayflower.

“We have to make sure the boat knows how to deal with anything it might find,” said Andy Stanford-Clark, IBM’s chief technology officer for the UK and Ireland.

But how hard can it be to steer across thousands of miles of empty water? Very difficult indeed, Stanford-Clark said. The ship will have to change course and speed up or slow down to cope with changing weather, choppy water, or nearby ships. Because it will be connected to land only by a satellite radio with a slow data link, it can’t rely on a cloud-based data center for backup. This Mayflower must think for itself.

So IBM has been using data collected from boats sailing near Plymouth’s harbor to “train” the ship’s computers to recognize the true meaning of data collected by the Mayflower’s radars, cameras, and other sensors. But until the ship puts out to sea, it’s impossible to be sure they’ve prepared the computers for every possible threat. “What if it sees something it hasn’t seen before?” Stanford-Clark asked. “This is where the risk comes in.”


But of course that’s what makes it a science project.

“It’s still quite a challenge,” Stanford-Clark said, “or we’d be doing it already.”

But the Mayflower won’t just be cruising the Atlantic. It will be crammed with gear for experiments designed by scientists at the University of Plymouth. It will sample the water for microplastic waste generated by human activity, and measure acid levels in seawater, which tend to increase because along with high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In addition, the ship will use sonar to conduct a census of undersea life.

Kevin Jones, the university’s dean of science and engineering, said the electric boat will be so quiet that its gear will be able to detect the sounds made by fish and whales and accurately estimate their numbers.

Vast parts of the oceans remain largely unexplored, Jones said, because it’s too costly for people and ships to conduct long-term research in remote areas. But a fleet of seagoing robots like the Mayflower could monitor ocean conditions nearly anywhere, and nearly all the time.

After a decade or two, the sea might run out of secrets.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.