400 Years Later, Mayflower to Arrive Without Captain

In September 2020, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship will leave England and arrive in Massachusetts two weeks later, all unmanned. The project is being headed by ProMare and IBM and looks nothing like the Mayflower of 1620.

(TNS) — When the Mayflower departed for the New World on what would be a 66-day journey in 1620, it was carrying 102 passengers and an estimated 30 crew members. But when the Mayflower Autonomous Ship leaves England bound for Plymouth next fall, there won't be a single person on board and it will take only two weeks to reach Massachusetts.

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship will leave Plymouth, England in September of 2020 to mark the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower's original voyage. Using powerful servers, GPS, cloud technology and artificial intelligence software from tech-giant IBM, the ultra-modern vessel could be one of the first self-navigating, full-sized vessels to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Brett Phaneuf, a Boston native and co-director of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship project, spoke to The Patriot Ledger from London Wednesday afternoon. He said it was in a meeting with the city of Plymouth, England that the idea came about.

"Someone said 'We were thinking about building a replica ship for Plymouth 400' and I said 'Well, there is already is one in Massachusetts, so maybe let's not do that," Phaneuf said. "Maybe instead of building something in the name of the 17th Century, we should use this opportunity and our shared heritage to invoke the idea of something new, which is what the Mayflower is really all about. Why don't we do something that speaks to the next 400 years, rather than the last?"

From there, the project took on a marine research element that Phaneuf said is at the forefront of current scientific trends.

"I wanted to commemorate the voyage and use the anniversary to focus our minds on the next generation of research and the marine enterprise in general," he said. "I wanted to do something that would speak to the future but still be informed by our past."

The project is being lead and the ship built by ProMare, a marine research nonprofit, and IBM. It looks nothing like the original Mayflower, and is instead a sleek trimaran — or multihull boat — that looks more like something from a work of science fiction. The ship itself is currently under construction in Poland and, when completed, will weigh 5 tons. It will have a backup generator on board but run on solar and wind power.

Unlike the compass and nautical chart navigational techniques used by the first voyagers, the Autonomous Mayflower will use precision GPS technology, light and radio ranging, cameras and satellites to make its voyage. Data about the journey will be processed on-shore by IBM and on-board by high-tech devices that will help the ship avoid hazards at sea. The ship will also be equipped with sound and temperature sensors that can collect information about surrounding air and water.

The vessel will carry three research pods to collect data along the journey. The research work — which includes marine mammal monitoring, sea level mapping and ocean plastics information — will be coordinated by the University of Plymouth in England.

"We'll be filtering water, collecting information about pollution, sea level, wind waves, current. It's going to do research, but it itself is a research project," Phaneuf said. "We want to answer the question: 'How do I reliably go sea for long periods of time, powered by things like wind and solar power, and do work in the ocean, which is a hostile environment?' . . . It's an evolving project. Within a few years time, our goal is complete circumnavigation."

The Hull of the ship is expected to arrive in Plymouth, England in February, and it will be fitted with advanced navigation and research equipment through June. In July and August, the vessel will be tested at sea, and in September of 2020 it will set sail from the U.K. It is expected to arrive in Plymouth, Mass. two weeks later.

"It's hard to capture the spirit of those people and the risks they took," Phaneuf said of the original Mayflower passengers. "They took those risks in furtherance of a goal, of a new beginning, and it's hard to honor that appropriately but we do want to recognize their courage."

©2019 The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.