VIDEO: Sea trials set for Mayflower autonomous ship’s “AI Captain”

Written by Nick Blenkey
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The Mayflower Autonomous Ship, from marine research organization Promare, with support from IBM (rendering)

IBM (NYSE: IBM) and marine research organization Promare, report that a new “AI Captain,” intended to enable the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) to self-navigate across the Atlantic later this year, will be trialed at sea this month.

As we reported earlier (see story), plans are for the 15 meter long MAS to set sail from Plymouth, England, on September 6 and cross the Atlantic Ocean, to Plymouth, Mass., commemorating the voyage of the original Mayflower. It will be powered by a hybrid propulsion system, utilizing wind, solar, state-of-the-art batteries, and a diesel generator.

The trial of the AI Captain will take place on a manned research vessel off the coast of Plymouth, England, and will evaluate how the the system uses cameras, AI and edge computing systems to safely navigate around ships, buoys and other ocean hazards that the MAS is expected to meet during its transatlantic voyage in September 2020.

MAS will trace the route of the original 1620 Mayflower with no human captain or onboard crew.

“Many of today’s autonomous ships are really just automated – robots which do not dynamically adapt to new situations and rely heavily on operator override,” said Don Scott, CTO of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship project. “Using an integrated set of IBM’s AI, cloud, and edge technologies, we are aiming to give the Mayflower the ability to operate independently in some of the most challenging circumstances on the planet.”

MAS will rely on IBM’s advanced AI and edge computing systems to sense, think and make decisions at sea, even with no human intervention. With the three hulls of the trimaran MAS currently reaching the final phase of construction in Gdansk, Poland, a prototype of the AI Captain will first take to the water on a manned vessel – the Plymouth Quest – a research ship owned and operated by the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the U.K. The March sea trials, which will be conducted in waters of Smart Sound Plymouth, under the watchful eye of the Plymouth Quest’s human crew, will help determine how the Mayflower’s AI Captain performs in real-world maritime scenarios, and provide valuable feedback to help refine the ship’s machine learning models.

Two years of training and a million nautical images

Over the past two years, the Mayflower team has been training the ship’s AI models using over a million nautical images collected from cameras in the Plymouth Sound in the U.K. as well as open source databases. To meet the processing demands of machine learning, the team used the same IBM technologies behind the world’s smartest AI supercomputers. Now, using IBM’s computer vision technology, the Mayflower’s AI Captain should be able to independently detect and classify ships, buoys and other hazards such as land, breakwaters and debris.

Keeping things local

As the MAS will not have access to high-bandwidth connectivity throughout its transatlantic voyage, it will use a fully autonomous IBM edge computing system and will process data locally, increasing the speed of decision making and reducing the amount of data flow and storage on the ship.

“Edge computing is critical to making an autonomous ship like the Mayflower possible. The Mayflower needs to sense its environment, make smart decisions about its situation and then act on these insights in the minimum amount of time – even in the presence of intermittent connectivity, and all while keeping data secure from cyber threats,” said Rob High, VP and CTO for Edge Computing, IBM. “IBM’s edge computing solutions are designed to support mission-critical workloads like the Mayflower Autonomous Ship, extending the power of the cloud and the security and flexibility of Red Hat Enterprise Linux all the way out to the edge of the network, even in the middle of the ocean.”

Getting there (safely)
As well as following the overall mission objectives to reach Plymouth, Massachusetts in the shortest amount of time, the AI Captain will draw on IBM’s rule management system (Operational Decision Manager – ODM) to follow the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs) as well as recommendations from the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). Used widely across the financial services industry, ODM is particularly suited to the Mayflower project as it provides a completely transparent record of its decision-making process, avoiding “black box” scenarios.

As the weather is one of the most significant factors impacting the success of the voyage, the AI Captain will use forecast data from The Weather Company to help make navigation decisions. A Safety Manager function (running on RHEL) will review all of the AI Captain’s decisions to ensure they are safe – for the MAS, and for other vessels in its vicinity.

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