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Image by Joe Woods



In 1620, the English ship Mayflower made the arduous 10-week journey from Plymouth to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I expect the 130 or so passengers on board couldn’t imagine in their wildest dreams how their journey would be replicated 400 years later.

For in September 2020, a crewless research ship – dubbed the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) – set sail for the first time.  If successful, it will achieve a feat almost as remarkable as its 17th century counterpart: the world’s first full-sized autonomous vessel to make the transatlantic voyage with zero crew members.


Even in today’s terms – with all the technology that surrounds us in daily life – this seems mightily impressive. It may not be as visually grand as the Mayflower was purported to be, but there’s a lot more to MAS than meets the eye…

For starters, it’s captained by a robot! You can keep your Ahab, Nemo and Jack Sparrow! This is by far the coolest captaincy I’ve ever heard of.

Specially trained by IBM-designed artificial intelligence, “AI Captain” (or should that be “AI AI Captain”?!) relies on a million nautical images to control the vessel from the shore. The ship will complete six months of sea trials before attempting its two-week Atlantic crossing. What’s more, it will spend those months collecting critical data about the state of the ocean.

According to the MAS website:

“The World Ocean contains more than half of all life on Earth, covers over 70 percent of its surface and contains 97 percent of its water. It regulates the Earth’s climate and acts as a crucial sink of excess heat and carbon. If we want to protect it, we have to understand it. If we want to understand it, we need more data about it.

“The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) is a grass roots initiative led by marine research non-profit ProMare with support from IBM and a global consortium of partners. Working in tandem with oceanographers and other vessels, MAS provides a flexible, cost-effective and safe option for gathering critical data about the ocean. It can spend long durations at sea, carrying scientific equipment and making its own decisions about how to optimize its route and mission.”

It is thought the expedition could transform oceanography, with the vessel facilitating the study of critical topics such as global warming, micro-plastic pollution and marine life conservation.

Whilst the original Mayflower measured more than 30 metres with a maximum speed of three knots (6km/h), the MAS is only half the length. Measuring 15 metres long, 6.2 metres wide and weighing around 5 tonnes, the MAS can achieve speeds of 10 knots thanks to its solar-driven hybrid electric motor. The navigation system puts even a top-of-the-range TomTom to shame, featuring Precision GNSS (Global Navigation, Satellite System), IMU (Inertial Measurement Units), radar, weather station, SATCOM and AIS. expands:

“The ship’s AI Captain performs a similar role to a human captain. Assimilating data from a number of sources, it constantly assesses its route, status and mission, and makes decisions about what to do next. Cameras and computer vision systems scan the horizon for hazards, and streams of meteorological data reveal potentially dangerous storms. Machine learning and automation software ensure that decisions are safe and in-line with collision regulations.

“Small, lightweight edge devices provide just enough local compute power for the ship to operate independently, even without connectivity or remote control. When a connection becomes available, the systems sync with the cloud, enabling updates and data upload.”

This all-singing, all-dancing version has certainly fared better than Harwich’s attempt at commemorating the 400-year anniversary…

Back in 2009, a meeting took place to discuss how the small Essex town could pay tribute to the Mayflower. The resultant plan of action was ambitious to say the least: to build a seaworthy, life-size replica and recreate the Transatlantic crossing. 

According to the BBC, the idea was to sail the ship to the US and then back to Harwich, where it would become a major tourist attraction. As with all “big” ideas, however, came big challenges:

"The first task was not building a ship at all, but building a shipyard in which the ship could be built. As well as this, a working project office had to be established, the necessary experts - from ship's architects to ship-building carpenters-cum-tutors - had to be assembled and procedures for taking on apprentices put in place."

And, importantly, the question of costs…

"The estimated costs rose steadily between 2009 and 2018, from a £2.4m initial estimate, to £4m in 2013, to about £6m in 2016 and then up to £10m, according to a statement from those involved in July 2017."

The rising costs - combined with all other issues you’d expect from a time-sensitive project of such scale – ultimately led to its failure.

It was Tom Daly – a local dentist – who first floated the idea of celebrating the anniversary with a replica ship build. It is thought he sunk £250,000 of his own money into the project, with little to show for it. Not only did the sea-going vessel fail to materialise, the planned life-sized shore replica didn’t either. Instead, Harwich made do with a seven-metre tall sculpture.

If nothing else, it makes for a great analogy for 2020. We had big plans for this year. During the previous decade, we’d made jokes about our “2020 vision”. But the joke was on us. Instead of a grand, three-masted sailing ship that could safely traverse the choppy seas of the Atlantic, we got an (albeit, artistically designed) hunk of metal in the middle of a roundabout in Essex.

Thankfully for those nautical history buffs among us, there is still the Mayflower II. Built in a shipyard in Devon in 1957, it has recently undergone a painstaking restoration project costing $11.2 million. With around 75% of the ship said to be new, it has taken more than a hundred specialists three years to complete. The ship has since returned to its berth at State Pier in Pilgrim Memorial State Park, Massachusetts where visitors can hop aboard for a tour.

For those not planning a trip to New England any time soon, it’s possible to track the progress of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship instead. features a countdown clock, detailing the number of days, hours and minutes until it’s anticipated arrival at Plymouth Harbour.  You can even follow the AI Captain on Instagram, Twitter and – curiously – LinkedIn, for “live voyage updates and automated mission data.”

I can’t say it’s something I’ll be checking regularly myself, but it’ll surely be worth a look in April 2021 to watch as history will (hopefully) be made. Anchors aweigh!

Image by Joe Woods
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