400 Years Later, A Robotic Mayflower Will Retrace The Pilgrims' Path

BOSTON (WBZ NewsRadio) — To mark the 400th anniversary of the pilgrims' journey from Plymouth, England to Plymouth, Massachusetts, the unmanned, robotic Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) will make that same 3220-mile trek while also providing data on meteorology, climatology, marine pollution, and mor

The sleek, technologically-advanced vessel is currently under construction in Poland. It is a collaboration between marine research non-profit ProMare, Plymouth University, IBM, and naval architects Whiskerstay Ltd. and M Subs Ltd.

Brett Phaneuf, founding board member of ProMare and Managing Director of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) project, told WBZ NewsRadio's Ben Parker the idea for MAS came about during a Plymouth, UK city council meeting, as officials there tried to think up ways to mark the 400th anniversary of the pilgrims' journey.

"There was talk of maybe a replica ship," he said. "My position was, well, there's already a replica, I've seen it, I've been on it as a child in Plymouth, Massachusetts, so we don't need that."

Instead, Phaneuf said he was looking to the future.

"I said what we really ought to do is something that speaks to the next 400 years, informed by our history and our maritime heritage and this idea of new beginnings that the pilgrim fathers undertook, and see what we can do to kind of speak to the next generation about marine research, oceanography, autonomy, and what's next as opposed to what's past."

While the original Mayflower carried about 135 people to the New World, there's no space for humans on this ship.

"There's absolutely no provision for people at all, and there is no space for anyone to be in it or on it—it is a pure machine designed for research with nobody ever present," Phaneuf said.

Aside from celebrating history, MAS's mission is to make waves in the field of oceanographic research. It will study meteorology, oceanography, climatology, biology, marine pollution and conservation, and autonomous navigation, all without the risk or cost of carrying a human crew.

"We need new types of ships to do that, that can get us more data and be at sea persistently, for very long periods of time, and be safer, because there aren't people there," Phaneuf said.

It will also test out new automation technology. Most commercial ships are already automated, Phaneuf said, but the MAS will allow researchers to find ways to get the ship to try to think for itself.

"The part that's interesting that is a research project unto itself is, for lack of a better word, the thinking part, the part of the machine that sits on top of that layer of reliable autonomy and understands its surroundings, looks at the weather, looks at the wind, looks at the health of the ship, looks at the goals we've set for it, looks at the instruments at its disposal, looks at the hazards at sea, other ships or detritus, what have you, and can dynamically re-plan its mission," he said.

MAS will set sail from Plymouth on September 6, 2020.

WBZ NewsRadio's Ben Parker (@radiobenparker) reports

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