New double motor gives electric autonomous ship redundancy and flexibility for 5,000 km transatlantic trip marking original Mayflower’s 400th anniversary.
In September of 1620, 128 people boarded the Mayflower, a 100 foot (30m), 180 ton three masted wooden boat, then travelled across the Atlantic for 66 days to land in the new world of North America.
To commemorate that historic journey, in spring of 2021 another Mayflower – a 50 foot (15m), three hulled aluminum and composite vessel weighing 5 tons – will take 12 days to travel the same route with 30 sensors onboard, 15 solar panels, 6 cameras, 2 electric motors, 1 sail fin…and 0 humans.
Dual electric motor has multiple drive options
The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) is a technological marvel with the most advanced Artificial Intelligence systems in the world. And while the Fischer Panda electric motor propelling it may not be the sexiest part of the boat, it is pretty important to have a reliable propulsion system if you’re planning a 5,000 kilometre unmanned journey across some of the planet’s most challenging waters.
As Brett Phaneuf, Co-Director of the project says, “The big issue for MAS isn’t automation, because automation is all around us in our daily lives. Reliability at sea is really the big challenge.”
Reliability is at the core of the Fischer Panda machine, having two individual 20kW motors set up with a belt connection – one motor attached to the propeller shaft. The prop can be powered by one motor or two as required, each motor has two separate electric windings – and each of those has its own control and throttle. For the unpredictable waters of the Atlantic, this gives the maximum in options and dependability.
The electric propulsion is augmented by a sailfin on top of MAS and together they will provide a maximum speed of 20 knots and an average of about 10 knots over the unrelenting 288 hours of the trip.
The solar panels, only 3mm thick, are capable of generating up to 2.5 kW on a clear day, but if the sun doesn’t cooperate, there is also a backup diesel generator to help charge the ship’s 500 kilogram lithium-ion battery. It runs the motors and all of the technology needed for autonomous sailing.
Electric autonomous ship ‘captained’ by AI
The MAS will be the largest autonomous vessel to ever cross the Atlantic. The project is led by marine research organization Promare and supported by IBM and a global consortium of partners, including Fischer-Panda.
Phaneuf told the IEEE Spectrum (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) that the inspiration for MAS came at a 2016 Plymouth (UK) city council meeting when the agenda turned to how to mark the 400th anniversary of the original Mayflower’s voyage.
Someone floated the idea of building a replica ship, but Phaneuf suggested that, instead of looking to the past, a better way to mark the historic journey would be to look at the future. “I said we should build something that represents what the marine enterprise for the next 400 years is going to look like.”
Council gave the go ahead, and there are now more than 30 partners supporting MAS, with some of the most important being the universities of Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle and Plymouth. There are also many sponsors that will be using the learning from MAS for commercial applications, but this new Mayflower is first and foremost a research vessel and gathering oceanographic and climate data is key.
“On one hand the objective is to create this specimen which is capable of crossing the Atlantic” Jonathan Batty from IBM told The Irish Times. “But, really, I think that the key objective is to create a set of technologies that will enable a different kind of ocean research vessel in the future. The vision is not for just one of these things to be floating around, but hundreds or thousands.”
Phaneuf notes that the big oceanographic research ships can cost tens of millions of dollars to build and then tens more millions every year to run them, with one of the main expenses being the money and logistics required to keep the people on those boats alive and fed.
He says “If we want to know more about things like the climate we need more data. And to get the volume of data we need, we need to reduce the cost of gathering it. With less expensive research vessels it will be possible to deploy different tiers of research and give better guidance to where manned ships should go.”
The AI process: Sense, Think, Act
In the end, an AI captain isn’t that much different from a human one. They both rely on the same processes: Sense (assess environment & identify hazards), Think (evaluate options) and Act (choose best actions and instructs vessel).
In the case of MAS, sensors constantly monitor everything happening on and around the ship. Attitude sensors assess the waves and how the boat is pitching and rolling. Water temperature and depth, propeller speed and rudder angle, solar panel current, battery charge status and more are all shown on a display back in Plymouth HQ. A simplified monitor, shown at left, is also available for the public to see on the MAS site.
At the same time, cameras and computer vision systems on the sailfin are scanning the horizon for hazards, and streams of meteorological data reveal potentially dangerous storms. As decisions are made machine learning and automation software ensure they are safe and in-line with collision regulations.
For those who are interested in the specifics of how all these processing demands are met, it requires an IBM Power AC922 fuelled by IBM Power9 CPUs and NVIDIA V100 Tensor Core GPUs, as well as IBM’s own AI weather forecasting service, The Weather Company.
Electric autonomous ship voyage now set for spring
The MAS was originally planned to make its voyage in 2020, but progress was delayed because of COVID-19 complications. On September 15 she finally was set into the waters of Plymouth harbour and will be doing sea trials for the next few months, preparingnow to set off for the USA Plymouth in spring of 2021.
The sophisticated electronic sensors and monitoring screens are great, of course, but at Plugboats we like to think that the new Mayflower also demonstrates the potential of another important technology: electric marine propulsion. At the most basic level, none of the goals of the MAS could be fulfilled without a couple of 20kW motors just ‘plugging along’ – quietly, cleanly and dependably – to take this new historic ship to her destination and all of us to a better, more informed future.