Data & AI

New adventures on the high seas thanks to the Mayflower’s autonomous ocean exploration

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Growing up in a family with a long naval history, I was fascinated by the stories my father and grandfather would tell about their adventures on the high seas: the wind, the weather, the ports, and the people. As a diver, my father would also share stories about the creatures he´d encountered, such as curious cephalpods and marine mammals that would accompany his ships.

On my own voyage to becoming a systems focused technologist, I have spent time thinking about #TechnologyInContext, to understand the impact of technology on society, politics, economics, and the environment. This always brings me full circle back to the ocean – a vast and complex system that we still understand very little about.

That is why I am so excited about the Mayflower, a true application of modern technologies that uses renewable energy to fuel the adventures of this AI-driven autonomous ship, which will gather data and use AI to give us new and groundbreaking insights in the environment, or system, that drives our world.

Let’s take a closer look at the vessel itself, its journey, the technology it utilizes, and of course ProMare, the organization behind the Mayflower project.


The Mayflower

As a fully autonomous and unmanned vessel, the Mayflower is the first of its kind, an ocean-going explorer with a mission to understand what is happening in our oceans. The 15m solar-powered Mayflower will roam the oceans under the control of its onboard AI, gathering and sending back data about waves, tides, and ocean flora and fauna that can be used to build models that will help make predictions, and to build the understanding that we need to address our biggest questions. As it travels, the Mayflower will have to learn how to deal with the weather, tides, shipping, marine mammals and all the other complexities of ocean travel.


An epic journey

The Mayflower´s maiden voyage is planned for Spring 2022 when it will follow in the wake of the original Mayflower from 400 years ago that transported the Pilgrims from Plymouth, UK, to Plymouth, Massachusetts, US.

On this epic voyage, the Mayflower will carry out several monitoring and measuring tasks, including:

  • Measuring the temperature, salinity, O2, and pH, which are the basic, important indicators of ocean health. This data will be available in real time on the MAS dashboard.
  • Using HyperTaste, a technology developed by IBM for AI-assisted rapid testing of the chemical composition of liquids. By studying the chemistry of the ocean, we will be able to track the potentially harmful absorption of carbon dioxide and the dynamic exchange of important elements between the earth, ocean, and atmosphere.
  • Detecting micro-plastics in real time using a microscope and image analysis software. Micro-plastics is one of the most urgent issues threatening our oceans, so this data is vital.
  • Looking at the fluorescence of algae, dyes, and pollution in the water through a fluorometer.

Click here > for more information on how the Mayflower will monitor ocean health.

Right now, the Mayflower is undergoing sea trials around Europe, including a three-day voyage that departed the UK on June 15, where the vessel averaged seven knots, covered a distance of 450 nautical miles, and made friends with the local dolphin populations.


Onboard technology

When it comes to plotting a course, deciding where to go next, and considering the best way to achieve its mission, the Mayflower is in the hands of its AI Captain which assimilates data from a number of sources, including 6 AI powered cameras, 30 onboard sensors, and 15 edge devices.

Unlike autonomous vehicles on roads where the AI only needs to think in two dimensions, the Mayflower will be facing waves that could be many times larger than the vessel itself, requiring the need for the AI Captain to think in three dimensions. To achieve this, the AI Captain will be using data from The Weather Company and GPS systems, which will allow IBM’s Operational Decision Management to make decisions while the IBM Edge Application Manager manages how the AI Captain does its processing.

The AI Captain’s only companion is Artie, a seven-armed virtual octopus assistant who is a stowaway on the Mayflower. Artie uses IBM chatbot technology to inspire a global dialogue on AI and the health of the ocean.

To discover more about the technology onboard, visit here > and here >



Our oceans cover over 70% of the surface of our planet, home to over half of all life on Earth and contain 97% of its water. However, exploring these vast areas is not straightforward. Established in 2001 to promote marine research and exploration, ProMare runs multiple projects around the world in collaboration with academic, corporate, public, and governmental organizations and agencies.

ProMare’s Mayflower project, supported by IBM and a global consortium of partners, will work in collaboration with oceanographers and other vessels to gather critical data about the ocean. As an unmanned vessel, the Mayflower offers advantages over traditional vessels: it can spend longer durations at sea and carry more scientific equipment as it doesn’t need to leave space for humans, food, bunks, etc. Plus, it can make its own decisions about how to optimize its route and mission.

To learn more about ProMare and how you can support their mission, please visit their website >


Want to learn more?

Of course I will be following the epic journey of Artie and AI Captain aboard the Mayflower, watching closely to discover what they learn about our oceans. Would you like to join me in tracking the Mayflower’s upcoming adventures?

If so, you can discover more about ProMare, follow the Mayflower live, enjoy an interactive Mayflower experience or connect via Twitter to AI and Artie the octopus.

If you are curious about the technology used by the Mayflower, visit the Mayflower pages and register for the upcoming Think Summit Benelux events in the Netherlands  or Belgium.

Lastly, if you’d like to find out how IBM’s AI technology can be applied to your industry,
contact Victoria Bunyard, CTO IBM Benelux.


CTO Benelux, IBM

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