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Britain’s first robot ship prepares to set sail 

‘We are at the mercy of the weather,” smiles Don Scott, standing on a slender steel hull. “If the sea is like glass it could take two weeks, but the north Atlantic weather is going to have a lot to say about that. It could take six.”

Here on a hillside industrial park above Plymouth, Britain’s boldest foray into robot shipping is taking shape. On Sept 16, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship, a 15-metre-long steel trimaran, will slip into Plymouth Sound to prepare for a pioneering voyage: the first unmanned transatlantic crossing powered by artificial intelligence and solar energy.

Barring an accident, no human beings will be involved in the 3,220-mile trip, which will mark the 400th anniversary of the original Mayflower crossing in 1620. That carried over 130 people, including five who perished, and lasted a gruelling 10 weeks.

The consortium of companies behind the project, led by Promare, a marine research organisation, and including IBM and M Subs, a Plymouth-based submarine manufacturer, have high hopes for the technology, which uses algorithms and computer vision to navigate a safe course.

“This is a disruptive technology,” says Scott, director of engineering at Marine Ai, which is also involved.

While aerial drones and driverless cars have captured more attention, experts believe autonomous shipping is on the verge of a breakthrough.

With investment flooding in from big companies including Rolls-Royce, Honeywell, ABB and Wartsila, one forecast from Allied Market Research suggests that the autonomous ships market could be worth $135bn (£102bn) by 2030. “Doing this on a ship is infinitely easier than in a car,” says Brett Phaneuf, president of M Subs and the driving force behind the Mayflower project.

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