The Robot Ships Are Coming ... Eventually  10/30/2020 13:00:00   Eric Niiler

Sometime next April, a 50-foot-long autonomous ship will shake loose the digital bonds of its human controllers, scan the horizon with radar, and set a course westward across the Atlantic. The Mayflower Autonomous Ship wont be taking commands from a human captain like the first Mayflower did during its crossing back in 1620. Instead it will get orders from an AI captain built by programmers at IBM.

The Mayflowers computing system processes data from 30 onboard sensors and six cameras to help the ship sail across the ocean, obey shipping rules (like how to pass other ships at sea), and control electrical and mechanical systems like the engine and rudder. There wont be anyone on board if something goes wrong, although it does have to send a daily report to a human operator back in the UK. Today, the Mayflower is a remote-controlled craft chugging around Plymouth Harbor. Transforming it into a fully autonomous sailing vessel by next April will be a big deal for Andy Stanford-Clark, IBMs UK and Ireland chief technology officer. Stanford-Clark and colleagues have been building the AI captain for the past few years, training it with more than a million images of ships, buoys, and natural features such as cliffs and icebergs. The algorithms that allow it to make navigation decisions may include some wildcards as well, Stanford-Clark says.

We dont know if there will be some emergent behavior that will come out, he says. Its a science experiment.

Stanford-Clark doesnt expect the ship to go rogue and head to Rio, but it may start acting more like a human, or at least a marine biologist. In fact, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship and its silicon-based captain will sample the ocean for plankton and microplastics. Thats part of its scientific mission for the projects sponsor, US-based nonprofit research organization ProMare, which is leading the $1.5 million project along with IBM and UK maritime tech startup Marine AI. Clark is crafting a set of commands to allow the software that runs each experiment to ask the AI captain to divert the ship to accommodate something the experiment wants to measure.

Imagine interesting situations where two experiments send competing requests, he says. There could be a bidding war for which experiment is the most important in some sense and gets priority.

Thats the kind of emergent behavior that Stanford-Clark is hoping for. The Mayflower is undergoing sea trials this month to integrate the AI captain with the rest of the ship, a trimaran made of lightweight aluminum and composite materials that resembles a trident-shaped dagger slicing through the water. The central hull contains the ships AI brain (several Nvidia Jetson AG devices that operate locally and dont require large-bandwidth satellite connections to process data and make decisions), a cargo bay with room for 1,500 pounds of scientific gear, and deck-mounted solar panels that charge lithium-ion phosphate batteries to run the engines and other electrical systems. It has a backup diesel engine in case the sun doesnt shine. If all goes well, the Mayflower will make test runs to Dublin, Ireland, and Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in early 2021 before its trans-Atlantic voyage in April 2021.

Although the ship wont carry passengers or cargo, the artificial intelligence and advanced autonomy that it is testing is now slowly making its way into commercial ships. From the Baltic Sea to Singapore, shipping companies are plugging in new AI-based navigation systems to take humans off the bridge, or at least make life easier if they stay on board. Like airplanes, nearly all big ships have an autopilot that navigates from point to point when there's not much going on. But the new programs would allow ships to sail autonomously or with little control through crowded shipping lanes or at ports, as well as reacting to hazards at sea.

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