WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Slowly but surely companies are developing the technology they need to eliminate many of the operating crews on board ships and this is yet another step towards that goal.
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Today it seems like many vehicles are driving themselves around, from giant cargo ships and trucks, to cars and even spacecraft … Now though, hot on the heels of the US military’s first autonomous ship and following a number of technical setbacks, the Mayflower autonomous research vessel has successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean, clocking up 3,500 miles (5,600 km) and arriving in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Researchers at Plymouth University in the UK first revealed plans to launch an autonomous research craft in 2015, which would set sail from the starting point of its famous Mayflower namesake in the UK and head to Plymouth, Massachusetts, on the 400th anniversary of the original Pilgrim voyage.
The Future of Shipping keynote, by Matthew Griffin
The project brought a number of global partners on board, including Nvidia, ocean research non-profit ProMare and IBM, to build out the 15-m (49.2-ft) trimaran and install an Artificial Intelligence (AI) Captain along with six AI-powered cameras, 15 edge computer systems, more than 30 sensors, navigation tech and a weather station. And all was looking good for launch in late 2020, with the Mayflower entering extended sea trials ahead of the Atlantic crossing attempt the following year.
In June 2021, the crewless vessel set off on its epic journey, but the attempt was abandoned after just three days of cruising at an average of 7 knots for 450 nautical miles due to a problem with the ship’s hybrid solar-electric/diesel propulsion system. A remote assessment determined that the generator fault could not be repaired without human intervention so the Mayflower returned to base.
See it in action
Repairs were undertaken and fresh on-water testing resumed in September, with another crossing attempt scheduled in for the Northern Hemisphere spring of 2022. And in the early morning of April 27, the Mayflower again departed from Turnchapel Wharf in Plymouth for a three-week journey to the United States. Not Plymouth, Massachusetts, as originally planned, but this time heading first for Virginia and then Washington.
Sadly, the generator again developed a mechanical issue on May 6 and the decision was made to direct the ship to Horta in the Azores for investigation and repairs. After waiting for two “significant low pressure systems” to pass, the command center in Plymouth performed a remote restart a couple of weeks later and the crossing attempt resumed.
The remaining 2,000 mile voyage appeared to be going without a hitch, until an issue with the charging circuit for the generator starter batteries was detected on May 28 and the Mayflower was diverted to Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada. The vessel subsequently made port on Sunday June 5.
“Our journey, since conception, has been eventful and challenging,” said ProMare on LinkedIn. “So we are thrilled that our ship completed the endurance challenge of being the first self-directed autonomous ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.”
Maybe, just maybe though, next time it could do it without so many breakdowns though …