Retracing the Mayflower for the Oceans

400 years after the fact, the captainless Mayflower is setting its sails again with the intent of retracing the path of its distant predecessor.

Not knowing what lie out beyond the eye's retention, the Mayflower came across the New Wold and now the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) hopes to make just as historic findings.

Four hundred years ago, in September of 1620, a merchant ship known as The Mayflower set sail from Plymouth, a small port in the south of England, with a goal of reaching the New World and setting up a colony. The Virginia Company gave them permission to establish a settlement (or plantation) on the East Coast. The voyagers, made up of secular colonists and Protestant separatists known as “Strangers” & “Saints,” split up between two ships at first. However, when the second ship, the Speedwell, sprung a leak early, everyone crammed together on the Mayflower for the long voyage to what would become Virginia.

The trip was long and unpleasant. The initial delay caused the overcrowded Mayflower to make the journey during the peak of storm season. Many of the passengers were violently seasick for the entire trip, and at least one man was washed overboard. They eventually arrived in the New World and set up their colony. What followed turned into the creation of the most successful experiments in a democracy the world has ever seen. 

Taking that idea of risk vs. reward to heart, project leader Brett Phaneuf attended a meeting to discuss how to recognize the 400th anniversary of the 1620 Mayflower voyage. What he came up with was the Mayflower Autonomous Ship.

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS)

A submarine builder by trade and an expert in robotics and underwater systems, Phaneuf didn’t support building another replica. He instead wanted to do something that would change the world. He proposed they do something bold, and build a 21st century Mayflower. 

His creation would be a vessel powered by artificial intelligence and draw energy from solar power. The primary focus of this ship would be to traverse the oceans without a captain, collecting data to help us learn more about the ocean, and safeguard the planet’s future. The vessel received its name in honor of not the Mayflower itself, but the pioneering spirit of the first people that braved the danger and hardship of the first voyage 400 years ago that changed the world. 

The Tech

MAS uses radar to detect any trouble or hazards in its path up to 2.5 miles in front of it. It uses onboard cameras to identify cargo ships, fishing vessels, and even partially submerged shipping containers. It then runs everything through an automatic identification system to provide specific information about the hazard like class, weight, speed, and cargo. 

Not only can it gather information, but what sets this vessel apart from others is the ability to REACT to those hazards. The AI captain determines the best action to take when a hazard is identified. For example, assume that MAS is in the open ocean, approaching Cape Cod, with no current network connectivity. In its path ahead is a cargo ship that has had a collision with a fishing vessel and lost some of its load. In this scenario, MAS’s AI Captain will use a host of technologies and processes to independently assess the situation and decide what

MAS Mission

Humans have a deep, psychological connection with the ocean. It is where we go on vacations, where we spend our happy times. When you think of paradise, most people picture the beach. While the ocean seems like an endless expanse of unknown, it is not too big to fail or be affected by human activity. 

According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on the Ocean, it is more polluted, warmer, more acidic, less productive, stormier, higher, more unpredictable, and more depleted than ever before. That’s why the U.N. has declared 2021-2030 to be the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development—a global effort to reverse the cycle of decline in ocean health.

We know more about the surface of Mars than we do about many parts of the ocean. Putting a research ship to the sea is expensive and limited by how much time people can spend onboard. Oceanographic research missions can also be dangerous and, with ocean tourism impacted by COVID-19, future financing for important projects has been thrown into question.

MAS endeavors to take the human aspect out of the process by launching the autonomous vessel to help scientists gather critical data about the ocean’s threats including microplastic pollution, unsustainable fishing practices, habitat degradation, and the impact on important species, including marine mammals.  

400 years after the original Mayflower trail blazed across the ocean to change the world, science is coming together to attempt to rebuild the road that brought us to where we are today.

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