Portland News

Autonomous AI Mayflower Braves Atlantic But Lands in Canada

AI Mayflower
The Mayflower completes its 5-week journey, landing in Canada

The Mayflower is an important name in American history as the vessel that carried the English pilgrims over to the shores of America. More than 400 years later, technological innovation has produced a robot to do the same thing.

A crewless autonomous boat named after the historic Mayflower attempted to retrace the 1620 voyage across the Atlantic Ocean from England. In a journey that lasted more than five weeks, the robotic boat piloted by artificial intelligence finally reached a destination – Canada.

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship was built over 50 feet or 15 meters. It traveled without any humans on board, acting as its own captain and navigator. However, the robot lacked the abilities that mechanics could provide to help steer itself toward the proper destination.

The AI-piloted trimaran docked in Halifax, Nova Scotia, enduring more than a month-long voyage, as recorded by tech company IBM, who was responsible for the robot. 

“The technology that makes up the autonomous system worked perfectly, flawlessly,” said Rob High, an IBM computing executive who contributed extensively to the project. “Mechanically, we did run into problems.”

The first attempt to retrace the historic voyage happened in June 2021, but technical glitches forced the boat to return to its home port in Plymouth, England. Another attempt was made on April 27, 2022. However, a generator problem caused it to steer toward the Azores Islands in Portugal. To help get it back on course, a team member flew in to perform emergency repairs. In May, another trouble occurred on the open sea when the boat hit a problem with the charging circuit for the generator’s starter batteries.

Although AI software has shown improvements in helping self-driving machines become more aware of their surroundings to pilot themselves, robots still face the problem of self-repair when a problem with the hardware goes off.

ProMare, a non-profit marine research organization that helped IBM build the ship, switched to a backup navigation computer on May 30, charting a course to Halifax, which was closer than any U.S. destination. According to IBM, the Mayflower’s webcam on Sunday morning revealed that a larger boat was towing it as the Halifax skyline neared, a safety requirement under international maritime rules.

Opinions expressed by Portland News contributors are their own.