Autonomous ‘Mayflower’ research ship will use IBM AI tech to cross the Atlantic in 2020

A fully autonomous ship called the “Mayflower” will make its voyage across the Atlantic Ocean next September, to mark the 400-year anniversary of the trip of the first Mayflower, which was very much not autonomous. It’s a stark way to drive home just how much technology has advanced in the last four centuries, but also a key demonstration of autonomous seafaring technology, put together by marine research and exploration organization Promare and powered by IBM technology.

The autonomous Mayflower will be decked out with solar panels, as well as diesel and wind turbines to provide it with its propulsion power, as it attempts the 3,220-mile journey from Plymouth in England, to Plymouth in Massachusetts in the U.S. The trip, if successful, will be among the first for full-size seafaring vessels navigating the Atlantic on their own, which Promare is hoping will open the doors to other research-focused applications of autonomous seagoing ships.

To support that use case, it’ll have research pods on board while it makes its trip. Three to be specific, developed by academics and researchers at the University of Plymouth, who will aim to run experiments in areas including maritime cybersecurity, sea mammal monitoring and even addressing the challenges of ocean-borne microplastics.

IBM has provided technical support for both the research and the navigation aspects of the mission, including providing its PowerAI vision technology backed by its Power Systems servers, which will work with deep learning models that it has developed in partnership with Promare to help with avoidance of obstacles and hazards at sea. It’ll use radar, lidar and optical cameras to accomplish all this.

The system is designed to use both local and remote processing, meaning devices on the ship will be able to operate without connection at the edge, and then check back in periodically with HQ when conditions allow for processing via nodes located at either shore.

This is a super cool project that could change the way we research the ocean, deep lakes and other aquatic environments. The plan is to also build VR and AR tools for essentially “boarding” the autonomous Mayflower while it’s on its trip, so stay tuned for more on how you can get a closer look at the project as it prepares for its run next year.

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