‘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.
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.