An Autonomous Ship Used AI To Cross The Atlantic Without A Human Crew

Just under 402 years ago, in August of 1620, the Mayflower set sail from Southampton, England, bound for America. The 100-foot-long-long, triple-masted wooden vessel with canvas sails took more than two months to cross the Atlantic. Earlier this month, another Mayflower crossed the Atlantic, but it couldn’t have been more different from its namesake in almost every way.

The differences? The new Mayflower-logically dubbed the Mayflower 400-is a 50-foot-long trimaran, can go up to 10 knots or 18.5 kilometers an hour, is powered by electric motors that run on solar energy, and required a crew of zero.

That’s because the ship was navigated by an on-board AI. Like a self-driving car, the ship was tricked out with multiple cameras and sensors to feed the AI information about its surroundings and help it make wise navigation decisions, such as re-routing around spots with bad weather.

The ship and its voyage were a collaboration between IBM and a marine research non-profit called ProMare.

Engineers trained the Mayflower 400’s “AI Captain” on petabytes of data; according to an IBM overview about the ship, its decisions are based on if/then rules and machine learning models for pattern recognition, but also go beyond these standards.

The training included teaching the algorithm to identify objects in its path like cargo ships, fishing vessels, or shipping containers floating in the water.

For all its training and preparation the Mayflower 400 ended up falling a bit short of its goal.

Details weren’t specified, but it may have been something similar to what happened during the ship’s first attempted voyage in 2021, when a metal component on the backup generator fractured, and solar power alone wasn’t enough for the ship to complete its journey.

The Mayflower 400’s engineers will doubtless press on and are likely already planning another voyage for the high-tech autonomous ship.