AI driven ships: will Mayflower change Shipping as we know it?

If you are like me and enjoy a good hi-tech story, then the new Mayflower Autonomous ship launch must have intrigued you. Powered by AI and the energy from the sun, the new trimaran Mayflower will be able to spend long durations at sea collecting critical data about the ocean.

Unlike the first Mayflower during its crossing back in 1620, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship, which is led by marine research organisation Promare, supported by IBM and a global consortium of partners, won’t be taking commands from a human captain. Instead it will get orders from an “AI Captain” built by programmers.

Aye, AI Captain!

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.

IBM wants its modern-day Mayflower Autonomous Vessel to complete the crossing in 12 days with not a single human aboard. Originally scheduled for September 2020, the crossing has been postponed until spring 2021, largely because of Covid-19 related holdups.

The challenges

While offering the opportunity to transform oceanographic research, an unmanned research ship presents many challenges. Research equipment on the Mayflower needs to be light, mobile and able to operate completely autonomously, even in the middle of the ocean, where there is no connectivity to systems on land. It must also have a high degree of fault tolerance and be robust enough able to withstand harsh ocean conditions. The fact that IBM owns its own AI weather forecasting service, The Weather Company, it does help however.


Mayflower can communicate from out at sea, but the low band width of such communication systems limits it to a simple text message. The ship can be directly controlled when close to shore if needs be, but out among the waves it’s on its own.

AI technology and sustainability

Besides the fact that the new-generation sun-powered Mayflower promises to transform oceanography and understand critical issues such as global warming, micro-plastic pollution and marine mammal conservation, AI technology in general can have multiple sustainable applications.

One example is fuel saving through route optimization in voyage planning. Since 2018, Stena Line has been experimenting with AI in this regard on the Stena Scandinavica ferry. These tests have proven that the platform can provide fuel savings of up to 3%. Stena Line aims to be fully AI-assisted in 2021. Areas where the company is already being supported by AI include administration, customer service and finance.

Will this be the future of shipping? Are autonomous ships a thing for the future or will we only integrate AI technology to help the crew and officers to make better decisions while in operation. I am very curious to see what the future will bring and if the Mayflower will actually be the first autonomous ship to sail successfully across the Atlantic.

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