AI vessel system begins sea trials ahead of autonomous transatlantic test

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship will undertake a completely unmanned voyage across the Atlantic later this year

IBM and marine research organisation Promare have announced the beginning of sea trials for a new vessel artificial intelligence system, which is planned to take control of navigation for the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) as its ‘AI Captain’ on a trans-Atlantic voyage later this year.

The sea trial, which will take place on a manned research vessel off the coast of Plymouth in the UK, will evaluate how the AI Captain uses cameras, AI and edge computing systems to safely navigate around ships, buoys and other ocean hazards that it could be expected to meet during its transatlantic voyage in September 2020.

MAS will trace the route of the original 1620 Mayflower to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the famous voyage. Sailing from Plymouth, UK to Plymouth, Massachusetts with no human captain or onboard crew, it will become one of the first full-sized, fully autonomous vessels to cross the Atlantic.

“While the autonomous shipping market is set to grow from $90 billion today to over $130 billion by 2030,” said Don Scott, CTO of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship, citing figures from Allied Market Research, “many of today’s autonomous ships are really just automated – robots which do not dynamically adapt to new situations and rely heavily on operator override.”

“Using an integrated set of IBM’s AI, Cloud, and edge technologies, we are aiming to give the Mayflower the ability to operate independently in some of the most challenging circumstances on the planet.”

MAS will rely on AI and edge computing systems to ‘sense’ what is happening at sea and make decisions on how to proceed, which IBM says it can do without human intervention.

With the three hulls of the trimaran MAS currently reaching the final phase of construction in Gdansk, Poland, a prototype of the AI Captain will first take to the water on a manned research vessel called the Plymouth Quest.

The March sea trials will be conducted in Smart Sound Plymouth, under the supervision of the Plymouth Quest’s human crew, to determine how the Mayflower’s AI Captain performs in real-world maritime scenarios. Data gathered by the system during testing will also help to refine its machine learning models ahead of the upcoming Atlantic voyage.

A million pictures

Over the past two years, the Mayflower team has been training the ship’s AI models using more than 1 million nautical images collected from cameras in the Plymouth Sound as well as open source databases.

Computer vision technology installed on the vessel will collect data while at sea and compare it with existing data to allow the AI Captain to independently detect and classify ships, buoys and other hazards such as land, breakwaters and debris. >>>continued on page 2

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Rob O'Dwyer

Rob is Chief Network Officer and one of the founders of Smart Maritime Network. He also serves as Chairman of the Smart Maritime Council. Rob has worked in the maritime technology sector since 2005, managing editorial for a range of leading publications in the transport and logistics sector. Get in touch by email by clicking here, or on LinkedIn by clicking here.

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