No hands on deck

When an experimental un-crewed ship piloted by AI takes to the open waters for sea trials, a Plymouth photographer will tag along for the voyage — remotely speaking, that is — but where will the journey take the rest of us? By Mark Cantrell

Mayflower Autonomous Ship. Image courtesy of ProMare/IBM.

THE journey might sound like a lonely one, but local photographer Oli Dickinson doesn’t need to worry about the lack of company on board. When the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) takes to the sea this year, he’ll be charting its voyage from the safety and comfort of shore.

Dickinson, 35, is no stranger to this unique vessel, or the challenges involved in recording its performance for posterity, having photographed the Mayflower’s official launch back in September 2020. On the back of that work, he has now been tasked with following the experimental ship as it’s put through its paces off the coast of Plymouth to prove its ‘sea legs’.

The vessel was built by a consortium led by marine research organisation ProMare, and it relies on cutting edge technology to do away with the need for a human crew. Powered by solar energy, it is piloted and navigated by AI computing technology developed by IBM.

Once the sea trials are completed — providing they prove successful, that is — then the vessel will begin its maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. The plan is for the Mayflower to follow the course of its 17th century namesake, departing from Plymouth, England, in spring this year, to make its way to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the USA.

Only this time, rather than carrying pilgrims to the ‘New’ World, this Mayflower will gather environmental data considered vital for oceanographers and climate scientists. This is a voyage of discovery, not of colonisation and conquest. We hope.

Brett Phaneuf, Co-Director of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship project. Credit: Tom Barnes for IBM

Putting a research ship to sea can cost tens of thousands of dollars or pounds a day and is limited by how much time people can spend on board — a prohibitive factor for many of today’s marine scientific missions,” said Brett Phaneuf, one of ProMare’s founding board members, and co-director of the MAS project. “With this project, we are pioneering a cost-effective and flexible platform for gathering data that will help safeguard the health of the ocean and the industries it supports.”

So, there’s a lot riding on this robo-ship as it prepares to set sail into a new maritime future, and not just the fortunes of Dickinson’s diminutive local photography business. Unsurprisingly, the man himself said he was “over the moon” by the chance to follow the Mayflower’s sea trials.

“IBM was so thrilled with my previous work,” he added. “I’m so excited to have been invited to be part of this important piece of groundbreaking work… It’s a huge compliment for a company as large as IBM to request the services of someone who is just starting out on their business journey.”

Indeed, though he has some 15 years’ experience as a photographer, he’s only run his own business — Different View Photography — for little more than a year. Quite a scoop, then, but it evidently helps to have an eye for technology.

Dickinson is an early adopter of aerial drones for professional photography and filming purposes, and he holds a commercial license for the activity. He’ll be using his drones to chart the Mayflower, just as he did for the launch; a job which required some complex piloting and camera manoeuvring.

Mayflower Autonomous Ship launches. Credit: Tom Barnes for IBM.

But what of the ship itself? Well, it has rather more in common with a modern bank than its centuries-old sailing namesake. That probably sounds an odd thing to say about an ocean-going trimaran, but that’s how it was put by IBM UK & Ireland’s chief technology officer, Andy Stanford-Clark.

He went on to say that thanks to the kit on board, MAS is “able to scan the horizon for possible hazards, make informed decisions and change its course based on a fusion of live data”. He added: “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.”

Maybe so, but it’s still a ship so it needs to stay afloat in a rather more literal sense. That’s where some crucial marine engineering becomes a must. The hull was constructed and outfitted in Gdansk, Poland, by Aluship Technology, before the entire assemblage was transported to the UK. Hoisting the trimaran into the water for its official launch last September was the culmination of two years of design, construction, and hard work.

Even so, computing power is critical to the success of the Mayflower’s fortunes if it’s not to end up ‘dead in the water’. That’s where the AI Captain comes in. This was built by ProMare and IBM developers to give MAS the ability to sense, ‘think’ and make decisions at sea with no human captain or crew on board. This new class of marine AI is underpinned by IBM’s latest advanced edge computing systems, automation software, computer vision technology and Red Hat Open Source software.

“IBM helped put man on the moon and is excited by the challenge of using advanced technologies to cross and research our deepest oceans,” said Stanford-Clark, when the company announced it had joined the MAS project back in October 2019. “By providing the brains for the Mayflower Autonomous Ship, we are pushing the boundaries of science and autonomous technologies to address critical environmental issues.”

As Phaneuf indicated, Mayflower is designed to provide a “safe, flexible and cost-effective way” to gather data about the ocean. The vessel will carry three research pods containing an array of sensors and scientific instrumentation that scientists will use to advance their understanding. The work will be coordinated by experts from Plymouth University, with support from both ProMare and IBM.

One of the vessel’s first missions will be to investigate microplastic pollution. Other areas where ships of its ilk could play an important — and insightful — role include global warming, maritime cybersecurity, sea level mapping, and marine mammal conservation efforts.

“Microplastics present a substantial challenge to our oceans,” said Professor Richard Thompson OBE, director of the university’s Marine Institute. “Over 700 species come into contact with marine litter which is found from the poles to the equator, and estimates are that the quantity of plastic in the oceans will triple in the decade to 2025. The Mayflower Autonomous Ship gives us the opportunity to rethink how to collect data and further our understanding of this global issue.”

The plan is for MAS to spend six months in sea trials and undertake various research missions and voyages locally, before it attempts to cross the Atlantic in Spring 2021. This transatlantic voyage will be based on a similar route to the original Mayflower 400 years ago.

If the sea trials, and this maiden crossing prove successful, then it is anticipated that MAS will ‘unfurl the sails’ for a whole generation of full-sized autonomous research vessels. In the future, such a robotic fleet could play a critical role in tomorrow’s ‘voyages of discovery’, exploring a new world of scientific understanding.

Oli Dickinson

For Dickinson, capturing a pictorial record of the Mayflower’s sea trials is quite the departure for the “sports mad” teacher turned professional photographer, but it’s one that gives him a bird’s eye view on a pioneering moment of history.

But here’s a thought: how long before the technology at the heart of the Mayflower finds itself re-tasked to other purposes, such as powering autonomous camera drones? As the photographer casts his remote eye out to sea to watch the old world meet the new, you have to ask, is he ‘pilgrim’ or ‘native’?

We might all ask the same thing, as we scan the shorelines of tomorrow and ponder what may some day appear on our horizon. The arrival of the original Mayflower didn’t work out so well for the locals, after all. Ship ahoy! The machines are coming…


Mayflower Autonomous Ship launches. Credit: Tom Barnes for IBM.


Name: Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS)

Organisations: ProMare, IBM and a global consortium of partners

Mission: MAS and other autonomous ships and drones working in tandem with human scientists to collect vital oceanographic data

Humans on board: 0

Sensors on board: 30+

AI Cameras on board: 6

Science projects: Marine mammals, micro plastics, sea level height and wave patterns, oceanographic and environmental data collection

Length: 15 metres

Width: 6.2 metres

Max speed: 10 knots

Weight: 5 tons/4,535kg

Equipment capacity: 0.7 tons/700kg

Hull design: Trimaran (central hull with two outrigger wings)

Power: Solar-driven hybrid electric motor

Software: IBM Visual Insights computer vision technology, IBM edge systems, IBM Operational Decision Manager automation software, IBM Maximo asset management software, data from The Weather Company

Hardware: IBM Power Systems AC922, 6 Jetson AGX Xavier, 2 Jetson Xavier NX, 4+ Intel-based computers, 4+ custom microprocessor systems

Navigation equipment: Precision GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System), IMU (Inertial Measurement Units), radar, weather station, SATCOM, AIS

Visit the live mission portal.

Cross-section view of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship. Image courtesy of ProMare.



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Mark Cantrell

Mark Cantrell

A UK writer and journalist, Mark Cantrell is also the author of two novels: Citizen Zero and Silas Morlock. Read more of his work at