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The Mayflower solar powered autonomous boat prepares to cross the Atlantic Ocean without humans on board

Launched four years ago, this autonomous trimaran project has been the subject of international collaboration and has received support from IBM. The boat will weigh anchor on May 15, destination Plymouth, Massachusetts in the United States.

Sailing in Plymouth Bay, in the south-west of England, the ” Mayflower 400 », The first intelligent vessel, switches off its engines and activates a hydrophone, designed to listen to whales. All without any human intervention. Capable of making its own decisions and sailing in total autonomy, this small trimaran 15 meters long and 9 tonnes, covered with solar panels, is preparing to cross the Atlantic Ocean on its own. He will be able to study the environment by analyzing the presence of plastic in the water or stalking them mammals sailors.

The ocean ” is the most powerful force on the planet that regulates our climate », Explains to AFP Brett Phaneuf, founder of the ProMare association and architect of the project. But more than 80% of the oceans remain unexplored, because of their vastness and the dangers involved. “ The sea is a harsh environment, so having a boat with no one on board really allows scientists to expand the study area. », Underlines Rosie Lickorish, specialist in emerging technologies at IBM, one of the partners who joined the project since its birth four years ago.

Information collected available free of charge

When the idea emerged, ” other technology providers have started to help us », Says Brett Phaneuf, as well as several« hundreds Of people from India to the United States, via Japan or Switzerland. Without this ” global effort “, the project ” would have cost tens of millionss “of dollars instead of” just under a million dollars ”Ultimately invested by ProMare, which will make the information collected free of charge.

The big departure to the United States is scheduled for around May 15, depending on the weather and the currently uncertain authorization from the British authorities. The boat is expected to take about three weeks to reach another Plymouth, Massachusetts, replicating the original “Mayflower” crossing over 400 years ago, in 1620, when a hundred “pilgrims”, English religious dissidents, had left for the New World.

But for this future trip, which was delayed by the pandemic, « no one will get sick “And” we can take all the time we want for scientific experiments », Specifies Mr. Phaneuf on the English port. At his side, seated on the quays, three IT specialists control the equipment from their computers while a 21-year-old engineering student, Meirwen Jenking-Rees, checks the engines before a workout.

An AI trained in maritime navigation

The construction from the fully robotic trimaran, from the rudder to the diesel generator set which completes theenergy solar, took a year. The development of his ” virtual captain “, a artificial intelligence who began by learning to identify maritime obstacles by analyzing thousands of photographies, took even longer. The programmers also taught the “Mayflower 400” to avoid collisions. On the strength of this knowledge, the boat went to sea for a “ supervised learning ». « We can tell him what his good and bad deeds are, what is dangerous or not », Explains Ollie Thompson, engineer in robotic.

Then ” we go to the stage where the boat is able to correct itself “, That is to say” to think “thanks to a computer system which simulates the way in which a brain human analyzes information. ” He continues to learn on his own “, Using his” eyes “, A sophisticated system of six cameras, and its” ears “, that is to say its radar, adds Mr. Thompson. However, due to unheard-of regulations on navigation without anyone on board, the “Mayflower 400” has not yet been able to “ go out on rough seas, with big waves, of vent, rain “, be the ” worst case scenario », That of a violent storm, regrets Meirwen Jenking-Rees. Instead, the trimaran trained to face waves of 50 meters using a simulator.

Mayflower 400 will detect marine mammals and analyze water

He will use his artificial intelligence to conduct scientific experiments, says Rosie Lickorish. He has for example ” been trained using thousands of hours of audio recording (…) to detect marine mammals, recognize them and teach us about the distribution of their populations ».

Analyze the chemical composition of water, measure sea level and take samples for microplastics Other missions include collecting data similar to that which robots have been doing in space for decades. Despite its total autonomy, the team will monitor the boat 24 hours a day from England, ready to intervene remotely in case of danger. We can follow the crossing via the Twitter account dedicated to Mayflower 400.

Autonomous boat Mayflower, piloted by an AI, will cross the Atlantic

Article by Fabrice Auclert 10/18/2019

The NGO Promare is associated with IBM for a beautiful project: to celebrate the 400 years of the first crossing of the English colonists towards the United States. This “Mayflower” of the XXIe century will leave in September 2020 and navigation will be entrusted to artificial intelligence.

Almost 400 years ago, in September 1620, a ship left England for the north of the American continent. His name: the Mayflower, which became the symbol of the arrival of the first European settlers in the United States. To celebrate this anniversary, the NGO Promare and IBM decided to redo the route by boat, between Plymouth in England, and Plymouth in Massachusetts; and the inventor of Deep Blue has decided to entrust the helm to … an artificial intelligence!

This fully autonomous trimaran is simply called “Mayflower”, it will leave in September, like its illustrious ancestor. To cover the 5,000 km or so that separate the two continents, Promare and IBM have equipped their ship with solar panels, as well aswind turbines and a diesel motor to propel it.

Without a crew or remote control, this autonomous boat will cross the Atlantic from September 2020. © IBM

AI will detect obstacles

This trip will not only be symbolic since the ship will also be used to conduct experiments in areas such as maritime cybersecurity, marine mammal surveillance and the study of microplastics. For this project, IBM provided its technology PowerAI Vision, capable of detecting objects in images and videos. It will avoid obstacles and other dangers at sea. For this, the AI ​​will use radars and Lidar.

Thanks to the servers on the boat, everything works locally, without an external connection, and the term “autonomous” takes on its full interest here. Simply, the data will be sent to the two HQs, located at the start and at the end. For those who will stay at the dock, the idea is to offer them applications of virtual reality to board the Mayflower and to make the crossing “virtually”.

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