Almost a year after the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) was originally scheduled to sail from Plymouth, England to Plymouth, Massachusetts on the same route as the original in 1620, the ship finally set sail last month. A few days later, a damaged clutch on the generator's exhaust system forced MAS to return to England before it could complete the 3,000-mile journey.
COVID caused the original delay and gave the team more time to complete testing before launch. Everything worked as it should before the ship cast off. In fact, all of the instruments and sensors that enable the ship to travel safely autonomously worked wonderfully, said Brett Phaneuf, President and CEO of Submergence Group and Marlin Submarines Ltd. (M Subs).
Phaneuf was part of the team behind MAS from the start, describing the clutch failure that forced the boat to return as a common problem and the type of problem he feared would arise.
The original Mayflower eventually had to return twice for repairs, he noted, but that ship had 102 passengers on board. MAS will be the first to cross the Atlantic without a captain or crew and will hopefully complete a three-week voyage later this year. The research vessel leverages IBM's automation, AI and edge computing technologies to assess its environment and make decisions.
The 50-foot ship is equipped with sails, batteries, diesel, solar panels and several propulsion systems, as well as redundancies with failure options. Its mission is to collect marine data during this voyage and beyond. The project is led by the marine research organization ProMare, with IBM serving as both a leading technology and a leading scientific partner. The positioning solution provider VERIPOS is one of the partners.
The modern version of the original Mayflower honors both the past and the future, commemorating that historic journey while celebrating what autonomous ships could mean for the future of marine exploration.
“Our ship was never really in danger,” said Phaneuf. “The swell was easy to handle and he was still collecting data and still talking to us. We knew where it was and everything around it, so there was no emergency and no rush because no one was on board. The ship could have stayed out for a week or a month while we decided what to do, but it was close enough to be easily grasped. “
Signs of problems
After traveling about 400 miles, the AI-powered ship reported a problem with maintaining speed, Phaneuf said. With MAS only a few days in the voyage and recovering, the team decided to reverse the Mayflower so they could investigate further and avoid major problems later in the voyage. So they told the ship to return and it took a course back to Plymouth, England.
MAS was traveling alone for about a day and a half before the generator's engine failed, Phaneuf said. It has batteries and solar panels for power supply, but because of the coupling problem it didn't have a generator to charge. MAS faced bad weather on the way back, with rough currents that required more energy and overcast skies that prevented a good recharge.
MAS went as far as it could before going into loiter mode to save power. An auxiliary boat was then sent to the exact location of the ship provided by the VERIPOS receivers and was able to pull MAS the rest of the way.
“When she came back, we opened it and found the flexible coupling on the exhaust system for the generator was torn in half,” said Phaneuf. “Millions of these things are in use; We're just unlucky. “
The team is now sourcing components to build a new exhaust system, replace the engine on the generator, and make a few other small adjustments to the ship, Phaneuf said, including possibly replacing some cameras.
Once all the repairs and changes have been made, which should be done over the next few weeks, the team will go through another series of tests to make sure everything is 100% before sending MAS back on their trip across the Atlantic. Then hurricanes could be the team's biggest concern. Phaneuf is hoping for another good weather window to kick off and will work closely with IBM's The Weather Company to find it.
Technology does its job
MAS was in excellent shape on his return, apart from the clutch issue. The ship's advanced technology – including the high-precision receivers from VERIPOS®, which is part of Hexagon's Positioning Intelligence division, and IBM's AI Captain – worked flawlessly, Phaneuf said. With the VERIPOS equipment, the team knew exactly where the boat was at all times, which was crucial for the return to home base.
“The Mayflower reported where the traffic was and positioned around it. The auxiliary boat went towards it like an arrow because it knew exactly where she was, ”said Phaneuf. “The clutch problem was a tough break and frustrating, but we know all the tough things work. We are encouraged now more than ever. We know we can do exactly what we want to do safely, so we're excited. “