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After IBM failed to sail an autonomous boat across the Atlantic, it’s trying again

The AI-powered ship will collect marine data without the expense of a human captain and crew, a money-saving boon for researchers if it succeeds.

ProMare and IBM's Mayflower in its first Atlantic crossing attempt in June. (IBM)
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After failing its first attempt to re-create the Mayflower’s voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, a crewless ocean vessel, powered by artificial intelligence, has returned to sea.

Propelled by IBM’s AI software, the autonomous ship set out in June for a month-long excursion through rough waters with no humans aboard. However, three days into what was supposed to be a monumental journey from Plymouth, England, to Plymouth, Mass., where pilgrim travelers settled in 1620, the robot ship suffered “a minor mechanical issue” according to ProMare, a nonprofit promoting marine research that is behind the project.

Researchers pushed out a software update, signaling for the ship to reverse course. The boat abided by its orders and headed to shore.

Yet according to Brett Phaneuf, co-director of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship Project, the organizers quickly began planning another voyage. “We’ve had a setback, but one that will put us further ahead than if we did nothing,” he said.

Earlier this month, researchers sent the ship back out for a shorter trip: This time it’ll focus on the waters around the United Kingdom, where crews can attend to it sooner if something unforeseen happens. “At some point, you have to go for it and take the risk or never improve,” Phaneuf said.

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Operating a sizable autonomous boat without a human is no simple task. Success hinges on its ability to withstand whatever the ocean throws at it, which could be sudden storms, extreme heat, rushing waves, drifting debris, massive wildlife and the like. Researchers say it’s nearly impossible to remotely control a ship thousands of miles from land. When trouble arises, there’s no one there to fix it.

“When you take people off ships, generally things tend to break pretty fast,” said Richard Jenkins, CEO of Saildrone, an ocean robotics company.

Steered by its “AI captain,” researchers hope the ship will still be able to collect data about the ocean, a money-saving prospect if the information can be gathered without humans onboard.

Sending humans to study the seas is risky and expensive. Oceanography often calls for weeks in remote locations and costly vessels built to sustain human life and activities away from land for long durations. ProMare made a $1 million investment in the endeavor, in the hope that it might help companies operate autonomous transportation at sea, just as companies are working to achieve on land and in space.

The ship is a triple-hulled vessel that uses a combination of wind turbines, diesel and solar power to travel across water. The 49-foot gadget was under development for more than two years before embarking on its first American voyage.

During the attempted transatlantic expedition, the ship’s average speed began to slow, leading researchers to think that its generator had mechanical damage. They spent four months addressing the damage, eventually discovering the issue was caused by a leak in the ship’s generator and exhaust system, a problem onboard software couldn’t resolve.

The vessel uses solar panels to draw energy from the sun, and an onboard generator kicks in automatically, when necessary, under cloudy conditions. But something caused a metal piece on the generator to fracture, forcing the vessel to rely solely on solar power, which wasn’t enough to complete the trip through rough seas and bad weather, according to an incident summary obtained by The Washington Post. Engineers replaced the generator and redesigned the metal part to prevent the problem from happening again, the report said.

Researchers say the setback taught them one thing: They should’ve tested it more.

“However much time you spend in sea trials, it’s not enough,” Phaneuf said. The AI-boosted Mayflower will probably spend the next several months in trials around Europe before attempting to undertake another transatlantic crossing in Spring 2022. It was initially scheduled to make stops along several Eastern U.S. ports. It’s unclear when that will happen.

The Mayflower vessel has six AI cameras and dozens of other sensors to spot and avoid potential hazards, such as wildlife or other boats. Its captain software was built to make decisions based on an obstacle’s size, direction, weather and available power supply, IBM said in a blog post. ProMare used the ship’s downtime to upgrade some edge computing devices to increase its onboard processing power.

Later this year, IBM plans to turn on cameras and data feeds for people to see what the ocean vehicle is up to as it cruises along the U.K. coast through the winter.

“Despite the setback, we’ve learned a lot and we’re more encouraged than ever that the Mayflower will safely navigate the world’s oceans in the near future,” Phaneuf said. Precisely when that future arrives is anyone’s guess.