IBM Launches a Crewless, AI-Powered Ocean Research Ship

Although humans have been travelling the sea for dozens of thousands of years, roughly 95% of the Earth’s oceans remain unexplored, and the last major research expedition to enrich our knowledge of the mysterious and tantalising depths took place between 1872 and 1876 – nearly a century and a half ago.

Inspired by the Challenger’s story, IBM had teamed up with the non-profit ProMare and built a crewless, AI-powered vessel called the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS), named after a ship of the same name which carried pilgrim settlers from Plymouth, England to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620.

Inspired by the exploits of the Challenger, IBM has built and recently launched a crewless, AI-powered ocean research vessel called the Mayflower Autonomous Ship. Image: IBM via newsroom.ibm.com

According to IBM, the ship is equipped with a wind/solar hybrid propulsions system with a backup diesel generator, an advanced GNSS positioning system with SATCOM, RADAR, and LIDAR, and the company’s own deep learning technology, developed to enable effective traversal of the harsh and often difficult-to-predict ocean environment.

“With MAS, we needed to go beyond the existing technology for unmanned ships, creating a vessel that isn’t just operated remotely and doesn’t simply react to the environment, but learns and adapts independently,” said Donald Scott, Director of Engineering at Marine AI which partnered with ProMare for the project.

In addition to the above technologies, MAS will also carry a range of sensors, including acoustic, nutrient, temperature, water, and air samplers, as well as edge devices capable of storing and analysing data locally, and then uploading it to edge nodes onshore as soon as it becomes possible to establish a link.

The ship departed on its voyage on 16 September and is set to arrive in Plymouth, Massachusetts two weeks after launch. IBM expects millions of virtual “pilgrims” to take part in the adventure online.

“IBM helped put man on the moon and is excited by the challenge of using advanced technologies to cross and research our deepest oceans. By providing the brain for the Mayflower Autonomous Ship, we are pushing the boundaries of science and autonomous technologies to address critical environmental issues,” said Andy Stanford-Clark, CTO of IBM UK & Ireland.

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