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AI, Captain: A Robot-Driven Boat Will Recreate the Mayflower’s Historic Voyage—Without a Single Crew Member

The artificial intelligence-controlled boat will sail from Plymouth, England, to Cape Cod next spring.

Four hundred years after its namesake made a famous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, the IBM Mayflower Autonomous Ship is preparing to do the same—with a decidedly modern twist: It will be captained by a robot.

The American computer giant has developed an artificial intelligence-controlled trimaran boat, which will make its official launch on Wednesday, reports the BBC. The autonomous ship, which will carry no passengers or crew, will undergo six months of testing at sea before sailing from Plymouth, England, to Cape Cod, following a course similar to the one traversed by the original Mayflower in 1620.

In contrast to the historic vessel, a 100-foot wooden ship that carried 102 pilgrims across the Atlantic, IBM’s Mayflower is a 49-foot aluminum multi-hull vessel designed to provide a safe and cost-effective way of gathering data about the ocean, according to IBM. The boat, which is the product of two years of development, is a level 5 autonomous craft meaning that it can operate completely independent of human interaction.

The high-tech vessel is helmed by a robot-trained “AI Captain” built by ProMare and IBM engineers. The computer company says the robot will be able to “sense, think and make decisions” at sea, all without having to rely on a human captain or onboard crew. The boat is loaded with all kinds of tech, including lidar, radar, cameras and multiple GPS antennas, to aid in the decision-making process.

A rendering of the IBM Mayflower Autonomous Ship (right) alongside its namesake

A computer rendering of the IBM Mayflower Autonomous Ship (right) alongside its namesake  IBM


“Able to scan the horizon for possible hazards, make informed decisions and change its course based on a fusion of live data, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship has more in common with a modern bank than its 17th century namesake,” said Andy Stanford-Clark, IBM UK and Ireland’s CTO. “With its ability to keep running in the face of the most challenging conditions, this small ship is a microcosm for every aspiring 21st century business.”

After it completes the half-year of sea trials, IBM’s Mayflower will sail from the UK to the US next spring, on a course closely echoing the 1620 crossing. While the original journey took to two months to complete, the autonomous ship, which has a top speed of 10 knots, is expected to reach its destination in just two weeks.

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