An unmanned robotic boat that attempted to retrace the Mayflower’s 1620 sea voyage has finally reached the shores of North America – this time in Canada instead of the Massachusetts coast where its namesake landed more ago 400 years old.
The sleek, self-driving trimaran docked in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Sunday after more than five weeks crossing the Atlantic Ocean from England, according to technology firm IBM, which helped build it.
Piloted by artificial intelligence technology, the autonomous 50-foot (15-meter) Mayflower ship had no captain, navigator or humans on board – although it might have helped to have an engineer.
“The technology that makes up the autonomous system worked flawlessly, flawlessly,” said Rob High, an IBM IT manager involved in the project. “Mechanically, we encountered problems.”
Her first attempt at the transatlantic crossing to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in June 2021 was beset with technical glitches, forcing the boat to return to her home port of Plymouth, England.
He departed from England almost a year later on April 27, bound for Virginia – but a generator problem diverted him to the Portuguese islands of the Azores, where a member of the team flown in for emergency repairs. Further problems on the high seas arose in late May when the vessel bound for the United States developed a problem with the charging circuit for the generator start batteries.
Artificial intelligence software is improving to help autonomous machines understand their surroundings and navigate themselves, but most robots can’t heal themselves when hardware goes bad.
The non-profit marine research organization ProMare, which worked with IBM to build the ship, switched to a standby navigation computer on May 30 and charted a course to Halifax – which was closer than any what an American destination. The boat’s webcam on Sunday morning showed it was being towed by a larger boat as it approached the Halifax skyline – a safety requirement under international maritime rules, IBM said.