Charting the Course
One of the key players behind the autonomous Mayflower is Brett Phaneuf, president and managing director of Submergence Group and Marlin Submarines Ltd. (M Subs), two
sister companies that specialize in the design, manufacturing and operation of manned and unmanned submersibles.
When city government officials and organizers in Plymouth, England, first started planning for the “Mayflower 400” anniversary and proposed the idea of building a replica of the ship, Phaneuf suggested a more exciting approach: to create a modern-day version of the ship that honors not just the past, but also the future. They were on board with the idea.
With a fresh vision to revolutionize the autonomous ships industry, Phaneuf committed his underwater vehicle companies to provide the engineering expertise and navigation software needed for the ambitious project. He envisioned a complex 50-foot ship complete with sails, batteries, diesel, solar panels and several propulsion systems, as well as redundancies with failure options to fall back on.
It wasn’t long before Phaneuf joined forces with Fredrick Soreide, a fellow director on the board of Promare, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting marine research and exploration throughout the world. Soreide saw an opportunity for MAS to be used as a research and development vessel—a place where innovations and ideas could be tested. Those at the non-profit jumped at the chance to finance the vessel and provide necessary equipment, and Promare signed a cooperation agreement with Plymouth University to conduct research and development (R&D) on the ship well beyond its Atlantic voyage.
“This is truly the forefront of technology,” said Soreide, who is now a systems integrator at Promare responsible for overseeing the MAS project. “We’re opening up a whole new world of low-cost research applications that are simply not possible with manned vessels because they’re so expensive to operate. I don’t think we can even imagine all the things we can do with this ship in the future.”
Phaneuf believes the return on the investment with this approach is the research, which will be broadly available to academics, scientists and corporations that want to help
move the field forward.
“The beauty of the project is it’s ROI-agnostic and accessible to all,” he said. “Those involved with this project want everyone to adopt the technology. We want everyone to get a return on investment in this type of work.”
Using MAS as a research vessel to de-risk complex autonomous testing within the broader industry also aligns with his original desire for the ship to serve as a catalyst for the future.
“Our goal, ultimately, is to fully circumnavigate the world unmanned, so this really does invoke the spirit of exploration that started with the Mayflower, which is this ethos of
freedom and new beginnings—a new start,” Phaneuf explained. “This long-term vision allows for the vessel to go on to conduct scientific research around the world.”
With a plan in motion, Phaneuf and Soreide were joined by a team of individuals and sponsors from companies like United Technologies Corporation, Gard Insurance, Rotex and IBM—who were all eager to contribute to the groundbreaking project and invest in its long-term potential.
Once the team was in place, attention was turned to the unique technical challenges and complex operational requirements of the ship. For MAS to complete even the most basic elements of its mission, it has to navigate an unpredictable and tumultuous sea autonomously.
“We needed an exact positioning system because knowing without a doubt where the ship is at all times is essential,” Phaneuf noted “And that’s where VERIPOS comes in.”
Hexagon | VERIPOS, is a global technology leader providing assured positioning solutions for the offshore marine oil and gas industry. It has gained a reputation in the maritime industry for providing the world’s most accurate, efficient and best-supported Precise Point Positioning (PPP) for navigation at sea. The company will provide the equipment, technology and services needed to track precisely where MAS is at any given point in time.
Phaneuf explains that he and Jonny Gerrard, the senior project manager at VERIPOS, sought each other out simultaneously when the MAS project was getting off the ground, both recognizing the partnership as a win-win.
Gerrard supplied the team with two LD6 Integrated Mobile Units, which are comprehensive, powerful receiver systems that can be configured with a multi-constellation Global
Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receiver. By leveraging that network and the VERIPOS proprietary corrections network, MAS would have the most robust positioning solutions available in the offshore marketplace.
“These receivers offer the highest levels of performance in terms of accuracy and reliability, no matter where the ship is and regardless of the conditions it may be sailing in,” said Gerrard. “They can receive correction signals that make the location of the vessel extremely reliable, resulting in an accuracy of five centimeters globally.”
In addition to the receivers, VERIPOS will be providing ongoing support through their Network Control Centre (NCC) in Aberdeen, which is manned 24 hours a day. VERIPOS has a backup NCC in Singapore for added redundancy. If any positioning issues arise, the MAS team will be able to contact the VERIPOS help desk and triage the situation immediately.
According to Phaneuf, the success of their mission hinges on these offerings.
“VERIPOS is providing us an unparalleled, state-of-the-art technology solution for the position of the ship,” he says. “Without that, all the autonomy in the world wouldn’t work and we’d be unable to operate.”
Navigating the Future
With a solid team of experts in place, the right resources, and much-needed positioning and navigation technology to make MAS a reality, the team is moving full speed ahead.
The ship’s modular subsystems were designed and built in the summer of 2019, and the yard will begin welding the keel in September 2019. In the December to January 2020 timeframe the hull will be finished, and in the first quarter of 2020 , it will be delivered to England. There, all of the equipment will be dropped in, including the VERIPOS receivers, computers and motors.
By the April to May 2020 timeframe, the new Mayflower will begin months of intensive testing so that it can safely set sail on the same date as its namesake, in September 2020.
Just like the vessel that inspired it, MAS will then be venturing into uncharted territory, but the team building it embraces the unknown like the pioneers that came before them.
In the initial stages, MAS will have aspects of higher-level autonomy while maintaining man-on-the-loop monitoring 24 hours a day, which involves someone onshore to take direct control over the vessel if need be.
As the team develops confidence in the automation’s reliability, Phaneuf explained, they plan to transition away from 24-hour surveillance slowly. His hope is that one day, if the ship encounters an issue, it might send a text message, or even call to report the situation. Eventually, he believes they’ll get to a place where the vessel will send data that scientists can process into information about the ocean, our climate and our world.
Phaneuf went on to muse about the far fringes of autonomy, and the idea of goal-oriented programming and dynamic action. A scenario where a vessel is given a command and is able to plan its route, avoid hazards, collect data, and respond to changes in the environment on-site without human intervention.
In a final uptick of inspiration, Phaneuf took his vision a step further: “We might even get to a point one day where the vessel plans its own research or detects an anomaly it hasn’t encountered before. Maybe then it decides ‘I have enough fuel; I could go over here for a day and have a look around and collect this data because my humans might be interested.’”
He paused, lost in the potential of it all, and then shifted his thoughts back to the present. “That’s sort of the far end, but to get there , we have to start here. One of the key enabling technologies at this moment is knowing where the ship is. And that’s why we have VERIPOS.”
Beyond the Horizon
The journey to the far fringes of autonomy will not be without its challenges—there are still technological, legal and regulatory hurdles to overcome. But according to Soreide,
that’s the beauty of it.
“There are, of course, a lot of unknowns in this game because the whole unmanned surface vessel market is really just opening up as we speak,” he said. “But what I really
like about this project is that we stop talking about it and actually go out and do it. We need to build it, test it and move forward.”
When it comes to moving forward despite the unknown, Soreide reflected on the inspiration that started the MAS project in the first place.
“First and foremost, this is a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims,” he said. “Just think about it: four centuries ago these guys set out into nowhere and didn’t know what to expect. So, this is also a celebration of that spirit of exploration, and honoring that in this new emerging way. It’s not only a celebration of the last 400 years—it’s a celebration of what’s to come.”