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IBM Unveils Autonomous Ship

When you hear of autonomous vehicles, people tend to immediately think of self-driving cars. However, IBM has recently joined forces with the UK-based marine research charity, Promare, to develop an autonomous ship. The autonomous ship has been appropriately dubbed the Mayflower, named during a ceremony on the 400th anniversary of its namesake’s historical voyage across the Atlantic in 1620.

The autonomous ship is completely outfitted with IBM technology, utilizing the company’s artificial intelligence along with IBM power servers, cloud, and edge computing technologies. In keeping up with the theme, the voyage will traverse the Atlantic Ocean from Plymouth, England to Plymouth, MA, although this time under the guiding hand of AI as opposed to a crew of pilgrims. The voyage is currently set to begin on Monday, April 19th 2021.

In the naming ceremony—which took place on September 16th last year—representatives from the UK, the US, and Holland, came together to celebrate the pioneering and innovative venture, cleverly inaugurating the autonomous ship with a bottle of Plymouth Gin as opposed to the typical Champagne.

US Ambassador to the UK Robert Wood Johnson spoke on the exciting mission while honoring the Pilgrims by saying, “Four centuries after the famous Mayflower voyage across the Atlantic, the US and the UK are once again setting sail from Plymouth to make history. American and British scientists have collaborated to launch a new autonomous Mayflower ship powered by the most cutting-edge artificial intelligence ever known. As we embark on this new era of marine exploration together, it could not be clearer: in America and Britain, the pioneering spirit of the original Mayflower Pilgrims lives on.”

The autonomous ship’s technology is ahead of the curve, achieving what IBM calls “level-5 autonomy,” which means that the ship can operate without any human intervention. The “AI Captain” is made possible by the ship’s six AI cameras and over 30 censors across its body.

Speaking on the high-tech nature of the vessel, IBM UK and Ireland chief technology officer Andy Stanford-Clark said, “Able to scan the horizon for possible hazards, make informed decisions and change its course based on a fusion of live data, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship has more in common with a modern bank than its 17th century namesake.”

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) was designed not only to develop new technology, but also to serve a practical purpose. The MAS was developed to be a “safe, flexible and cost-effective way of gathering data about the ocean” in order to help Promare, IBM Research, and other marine-life organizations study climate change, marine-mammal conservation, pollution, and other issues concerning the sea.

While the primary purpose of the MAS is research-based, there are many other applications for autonomous sea vessel technology. For instance, the landscape of the shipping industry could be forever changed if there is no longer a need for a crew. America’s domestic maritime industry produces over $150B in economic output annually, an industry of that size could reap some major financial rewards by switching to autonomous vessels, although that would severely impact the 650,000 jobs the industry is responsible for.

One thing is certain, should everything go according to plan once the MAS begins its voyage on April 19th, the seas will never be the same.

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