A save at sea

Hexagon | VERIPOS receivers shine in the early days of the MAS voyage

Photograph of Mayflower Autonomous Ship

After nearly a year-long delay  caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) began the 4,828 kilometre journey from Plymouth, England, to Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA, in June 2021. Its departure was set to commemorate the route the original Mayflower traveled in 1620 by making the first crewless trans- Atlantic journey. When a few days later a damaged coupling on the generator’s exhaust system forced a return to England, the VERIPOS high-precision receivers onboard proved invaluable.

MAS was in great shape upon its return other than the coupling issue, said Brett Phaneuf, president and managing director of Submergence Group and Marlin Submarines Ltd. (M Subs). Phaneuf’s been part of the team behind MAS since the beginning, and described the coupling damage that forced the boat to head back as a common issue, and the type of problem he was afraid would pop up.

The ship’s advanced technology—including those receivers from VERIPOS and AI Captain from IBM—worked flawlessly, he said. VERIPOS is the global leader in end-to-end assured positioning solutions for the offshore marine industry, while IBM is acting as both lead technology and lead scientific partner for the project.

With the VERIPOS equipment, the team knew exactly where the boat was at all times with centimetre-level accuracy, which was critical to the support boat quickly locating the ship so it could safely get it back to home base.

“The Mayflower was reporting where traffic was around it and positioning. The support boat went to it like a dart because it knew exactly where she was,” Phaneuf said. “The coupling issue was a tough break, and it was frustrating, but we know all the hard stuff works.”

After an exhaustive search, the team has located the parts needed for the repairs, Phaneuf said, which were inbound to the shop as of mid-July, 2021. The team plans to build a new exhaust system, replace the motor on the generator and make a few other small adjustments to the ship.

The 50-foot vessel should start trials in September 2021, ensuring everything is working properly before setting sail again, Phaneuf said. The trip to Plymouth Massachusetts, is now set for spring 2022. In the interim, MAS will travel to London and Rotterdam, and a few other places that will be announced soon.

The original colonial Mayflower returned twice for repairs, Phaneuf noted, and that ship had 102 passengers on board. MAS’ trip across the Atlantic will be without a captain or crew, and will collect ocean data along the way—which is its primary mission.

The modern-day version of the original Mayflower commemorates that historic journey while also celebrating what ships operating autonomously could mean for the future of ocean research.

Preparing for the initial launch

The original delay from 2020 to 2021 gave the team time to conduct more trials before the June launch, add more partners and integrate additional scientific payloads for a better, more reliable platform. They also used the time to refine the ship’s design, test its components and make structural improvements. There was never an issue with the coupling during the trials; it’s just one of those things that can fail on a boat, and it happened to fail early in the ship’s journey across the Atlantic.

The research vessel features an aluminum composite structure that relies on solar panels, IBM’s automation, AI and edge computing technologies, and two LD8 GNSS receivers from VERIPOS for centimetre-level positioning. Everything worked as it should during the trials, Phaneuf said, particularly the instruments and sensors that allow the ship to safely travel autonomously.

“We never had a doubt about positioning,” he said. “It was always where it said it was, right to the centimetre. The VERIPOS receiver is bulletproof.”

The ship is also equipped with three research pods that hold sensors and scientific instruments that collect data as MAS travels. The goal is to gain a better understanding of issues such as global warming and the impact of ocean plastic pollution on marine species. The autonomous research vessel offers a safer, more flexible way to gather information and perform sea-level mapping. It’s also more cost-effective than manned research ships, with all data collected given away for free to scientific organizations.

A closer look at the technology

Phaneuf and his team selected the LD8 GNSS receivers from VERIPOS because of their “fantastic performance” and “significant redundancies.” The solution provides precise position and heading, so they always know where the ship is pointed and where it’s going. Its low size, weight and power (SWaP) is also a huge benefit, as is its simple integration.

The receivers provide the vessel with centimetre-level accuracy anywhere in the world, under even the most challenging operating conditions. They can track up to three geostationary satellites that broadcast Apex5 correction service. As the vessel travels across the Atlantic, it will seamlessly use data from all the correction satellites without an operator having to manually switch beams.

By using multiple constellations, the receivers reduce the impact of satellite blockage to provide robust positioning. MAS will get the same accuracy from Apex5 no matter where it travels.

“So many things worked on this boat, including the VERIPOS equipment,” Phaneuf said. “You turn it on and you know it will work, and that’s important with unmanned vehicles. You need to know where it is and where it’s going. You’re not going to get anything better than VERIPOS equipment to answer those questions.”

IBM’s AI Captain also plays an important role, with AI a huge part of the research, Phaneuf said. For the last two years, the AI models have been trained with more than a million nautical images.

AI Captain helps the ship sense, think, make decisions and act autonomously, and is equipped with cameras, cutting-edge computing systems to process data locally and deep learning modules that enable MAS to avoid hazards. AI Captain fuses data collected from a variety of onboard technologies\ to do this, including radar, AIS (Automated Identification Systems), GPS, nautical charts, attitude sensors, a fathometer for water depth measurements, a Vehicle Management System for operational information and weather data provided by IBM’s The Weather Company.

All the technology came together cohesively during those first few days at sea, providing the navigation inputs needed for the ship to travel safely, Phaneuf said. The ship never came close to any other vessels, with the nearest one showing up on radar more than a mile away.

“If you don’t know where you are then you can’t really know where you have been or where you are going,” Phaneuf said. “The ‘when’ is critical as well, so you can plot the change in position and the change in the ocean over
time and geographic position. This is fundamental to safety and science. The use of VERIPOS cannot be overstated as mission critical.”

MAS also has a virtual command centre, where “virtual pilgrims” can experience the journey online. The
web portal IBM built displays data to the public in real-time, Phaneuf said, relaying where the ship is, where it’s going, what it’s experiencing and what it’s detecting. There’s also a chat box viewers can use to ask questions.

“It’s more challenging when the ship is near the shore so you need more vigilance in the system and to use cameras to a greater degree, but once you’re out in the blue it’s smooth sailing. It’s lovely cruising through the water, looking at the sun rise behind and the sun set in front of her,” he said. “We were getting a fantastic feed into the portal. At one point about 3,500 people were looking at the camera. People loved it. We’ve received lovely emails from people saying they miss looking at the waves from the ship and asking when it’s coming back.”

What’s next

As with the first launch, the team will work closely with IBM’s The Weather Company to find the best weather window before the voyage begins in spring 2022. The company provided hour by hour forecasting before and after MAS set sail in June 2021.

Once MAS arrives in Plymouth, Massachusetts, that journey will end but another will begin. The ship will remain at sea collecting data, continuing to document ocean health and adjusting its course to look closer at points of interest. The team will work closely with the Plymouth Marine Lab to perform oceanographic research as the ship travels down the East Coast and beyond.

The plan is to keep MAS active as a research vessel for many years, significantly changing and improving the way ocean data is collected.

“If we get it right her journey will never be complete,” Phaneuf said. “We intend to continue to improve and operate and collect data and provide that free of charge to the scientific community at large, all the while advancing our AI/ML based AI Captain.”

Moving marine autonomy forward

The vessel and the technology behind it is setting the stage for more autonomous ships to find a home on the water, including fleets. Phaneuf sees the first uptake commercially on manned and minimally manned vessels to increase situational awareness and safety. After that, the most likely uptakes will be in the military, offshore oil and gas/renewables, and ocean research.

These unmanned vehicles can go to dangerous places on long missions, and there’s no worries about crew members getting lost, bored or stuck in storms. Systems like those found on MAS also can live on manned vessels, helping crews maintain better situational awareness when they become tired or distracted.

“Pushing on the technology limit has allowed us to find the areas that are not fully developed and ready for commercial deployment,” Phaneuf said. “Through applied work with the Mayflower we are approaching new, useful and robust tools for broad use in manned and unmanned vessels that will increase safety at sea through the deployment of our AI Captain, in full or in part. Indeed, the most obvious first path to market is on manned vessels, to help keep people safe while at sea in commercial and leisure pursuits.”

Not only will vessels like MAS help keep crews out of dangerous areas, they also will help them become better stewards of the planet, Phaneuf said. 

“That’s the goal of AI,” he said, “to help humans be better, and it all depends on so many other underpinning technologies like radar and GPS.”

The ultimate goal

Phaneuf and the team are eager to relaunch MAS. They have full confidence that the VERIPOS receivers and other technologies will enable the ship to finish her 3,000-mile journey and then continue her mission to change how oceanographic research is collected.

“We’re more encouraged now than ever,” Phaneuf said. “We know we can do exactly what we want to do safely, so we’re excited.”

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