In the near future, a marine research non-profit with a huge vision will launch a first-of-its-kind, transoceanic crewless ship that will attempt to cross the Atlantic without human intervention.

Built by ProMare, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) will navigate the high seas using intelligent automation with artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze real-time sensor inputs, decide and perform automated processes and collect large amounts of data along its route to support marine science and ocean exploration. The transatlantic voyage is the culmination of years of effort by ProMare, partner firm, Marine Ai, and its exclusive technology partner, IBM, who has provided a wide array of technology and deep expertise to facilitate full autonomy to safely navigate ocean waters while also conducting a host of important marine science experiments.

First-of-its-kind attempts to innovate rarely make for easy feats, especially when faced with the unpredictable and punishing conditions of the ocean. For ProMare, its goal to greatly expand marine research globally required taking a completely different approach — one that would rely heavily on proven expertise and emerging technologies to help eliminate the human risks and costs that have made traditional ocean research so difficult. ProMare understood these challenges and risks and knew that in order to achieve its vision, it would need AI and automation to guide the ship.

Striving to be a catalyst for change

Given the scale, complexity and cost of ProMare’s mission to transform the fields of oceanography and marine research to improve the health of the ocean, the organization needed a long-term technology partner that not only offered a wide breadth of AI, automation tools and edge computing capabilities backed by extensive expertise, but also a partner that believed in the tech-for-good mission of ProMare and MAS.

To achieve its goal, ProMare needed a solution that would make budget-constrained research much more feasible. While the lack of a crew to perform manual tasks and research greatly reduces the size and cost of building and operating the ship, the elimination of a captain’s wisdom, sense, knowledge and adaptive abilities on the sea creates a whole new set of challenges. However, as the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of all invention.”

Intelligent automation: From lab simulations to real-world sea trials

In the time since this project was first conceived five years ago, advances in AI have greatly accelerated and converged with the functionalities of automation to become more mainstream. This critical convergence includes key cognitive technologies like visual recognition, natural language processing and machine learning. These advances have opened up incredible new possibilities for the MAS.

With the absence of a human crew, ProMare, Marine Ai and IBM worked together closely to extensively design, test and develop the ship’s brain — nicknamed the “AI Captain” — to effectively detect, process and decide how to navigate the ship. MAS uses IBM AI-powered Automation technology in innovative ways to avoid many of the dangers and obstacles that can quickly arise at any time when traveling across parts of the ocean.

In the video below, watch Don Scott, CTO of Marine Ai, demonstrate how IBM AI-Powered Automation allows the ship to run autonomously:


Using IBM’s operational decision management and route optimization capabilities, the AI Captain can direct the ship to follow regulatory measures (i.e., the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs)) and other navigation protocols. The AI Captain complies with these regulations and protocols based on actionable insights derived from data analytics collected by 30 on-board cameras, radar, sonar, AIS and other equipment.

The decision management technology also depends on the latest current and forecasted updates from The Weather Company®, an IBM Business, to make key navigation decisions to steer clear of any extreme weather in favor of calmer waters.

Additionally, to sense surrounding environmental conditions and make informed decisions without connecting to onshore systems, IBM’s edge computing technology manages 15 edge devices to process data onboard. When satellite connectivity is available, the ship can keep all structured and unstructured data and applications seamlessly integrated, secured, and connected via IBM Cloud®.

What AI-powered Automation on a ship can do in the enterprise

IBM’s collaboration with ProMare on the MAS is just one example of how IBM has deployed its latest intelligent AI and automation technologies to help drive innovation and develop solutions for growth and sustainability. With the introduction of IBM Cloud Pak® for Business Automation, IBM has brought together a number of the core AI Captain capabilities found aboard the Mayflower into a set of integrated innovative business process automation software designed to help solve some of the toughest operational challenges. 

Listen to Don Scott talk about how AI-powered automation technology might benefit other industries:

Using IBM’s AI-powered Automation, organizations from financial services to healthcare to distribution are realizing the benefits of intelligent automation, and they have reported [1] reducing manual processes by 80%, speeding up accurate task completions, reducing downtime, improving the customer experience and enabling humans to focus on higher value work. Industries experiencing significant costs and risks from human error or inadequate staffing, such as logistics and consumer goods, report benefiting [2] from the latest advances in AI-assisted decision-making and robotic process automation (RPA). Industries trying to keep up with the deluge of data and changing regulations, such as financial services and telecommunications, are creating intelligent workflows, including back-office processes like post-trade processing and confirmations, credit score checks and push notifications for fraud alerts.

In our next IBM Automation blog post on the MAS, we’ll go deeper into some of the parallels between what the Mayflower’s AI Captain does and how it can be adapted to enable similar intelligent automation solutions across other industries like financial services, where automation technology has been extensively used to drive digital transformation and provide a competitive advantage as reported by multiple financial clients [3] that realized significant value and results.

Learn more

Learn more about the Mayflower Autonomous Ship and its AI-powered Automation:


[1] IBM Client Story: Banco Popular; IBM Solution Brief: Brownells, Inc. (PDF, 231 KB); IBM Client Story: Turkcell

[2] IBM Client Story: Pegasis Hava; IBM Client Story: Brownells

[3] IBM Client Story: TD Ameritrade; IBM Client Story: PNC Financial Services; IBM Client Story: JFORCE Bilisim Teknolojileri

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