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Home / Technology / An unmanned boat recreates Mayflower’s 400-year-old journey, using artificial intelligence

An unmanned boat recreates Mayflower’s 400-year-old journey, using artificial intelligence



The Mayflower brought some of the first European settlers across the Atlantic to North America, 400 years ago this year.

To celebrate the anniversary, another vessel recreates that voyage, using artificial intelligence.

“We do not know how it will go. Will it cross the Atlantic?” software engineer and new technology specialist Rosie Lickorish told CBS News’ Roxana Saberi. “Fingers crossed that it has a successful first journey.”

The vessel, which is anchored in the port of Plymouth, England, will rely on the latest navigation technology when it goes out to sea ̵

1; but it will not have a crew or captain with it.

“We have all kinds of cameras … We have global positioning systems on both sides,” said robot expert Brett Phaneuf.

What it does not want, he said, is “human space.”

Instead, the ship will be led by artificial intelligence designed by IBM.

Phaneuf explained how the technology should work.

“It looks at its own cameras like eyes, it looks at the radar, it looks at all kinds of other sensors,” he said. “Then it maps its own course, and it can cope with unique situations without human input.”

These situations include meeting other ships during the voyage – some software engineer Ollie Thompson works hard to train the ship’s programming to recognize using more than a million different images.

“We simulate what she sees,” he said of the boat.

Programmers also set the ship’s destination for Plymouth, Massachusetts to track Mayflower’s four hundred year old passage.

It took the merchant ship three 66 days to transport dozens of pilgrims across the Atlantic.

A replica sailed from England to Massachusetts in the 1950s, and is still docked there today.

But Phenauf, who grew up near Plymouth, Massachusetts, wanted to mark Mayflower’s famous past by looking ahead instead.

“I thought, well, we should build a ship that speaks to the next 400 years. What marine business would look like then, as opposed to what it looked like 400 years ago,” he said.

An international team transformed its vision into the solar and wind-powered Mayflower autonomous ship. The purpose is to learn more about the earth’s oceans by collecting data on plastic pollution, warming water and their impact on marine life.

Software developer Rosie Likorish said the autonomous ship is a more cost-effective way to conduct research.

“It is very expensive at the moment for researchers who actually go out on these research assignments,” she said. “So having autonomous ships like the Mayflower Autonomous Ship is a very important step, which actually allows us to go out to these dangerous places and learn a lot more.”

In addition to saving money, having a crew does not mean that the size of the vessel can be compact, and there are no worries that someone will get sick or injured.

Brett Phenauf said his biggest concern would be if something broke.

If the boat capsized, the team plans to track it via satellite and salvage.

And if the unknown journey succeeds, Phenauf says it will remember the story as it maps a new path.

He said, “I want people to look back on this 400 years from now and think about how different this was from what other people did.”


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