AI, captain! First autonomous ship prepares for maiden voyage


PLYMOUTH, UNITED KINGDOM (AFP) – The “Mayflower 400” – the world’s first intelligent ship – bobs gently in a light swell as it stops its engines in Plymouth Sound, off England’s south-west coast, before self-activating a hydrophone designed to listen to whales.

The 15-metre-long trimaran, which weighs nine tonnes and navigates with complete autonomy, is preparing for a transatlantic voyage.

On its journey, the vessel – covered in solar panels – will study marine pollution and analyse plastic in the water, as well as track aquatic mammals.

Eighty per cent of the underwater world remains unexplored.

Mr Brett Phaneuf, co-founder of the charity ProMare and the mastermind behind the Mayflower project, said the ocean exerts “the most powerful force” on the global climate.

Ms Rosie Lickorish, a specialist in emerging technologies at IBM, one of the partners on the project, said the unmanned craft provided an advantage in the “unforgiving environment”.

“Having a ship without people on board allows scientists to expand the area they can observe,” she told AFP.

A variety of technology and service providers have contributed to the project with hundreds of individuals involved from nations including India, Switzerland and the United States, said Mr Phaneuf.

The project would have cost 10 times the roughly US$1 million (S$1.33 million) invested by ProMare without the “global effort”, he added.

Smart captain

The non-profit venture will offer the data gathered by the project free of charge.

The information could be of particular use to the future of commercial shipping.

The autonomous ship is scheduled to embark on May 15 if weather is favourable and permission is granted by British authorities.

Engineer Meirwen Jenking-Rees standing on the Mayflower 400 as she prepares to catch a rope, in Plymouth, England, on April 27, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

The journey to Plymouth, Massachusetts – the same voyage made by pilgrims on the original Mayflower in 1620 as they sought a new life in America – will take three weeks.

While the Mayflower 400 voyage has been delayed