Lessons from an autonomous ship

The health of our ocean is a critical, timely topic. Paradoxically, as we increasingly rely on it for our food, energy and other resources, we know relatively little about it – with as much as 80 percent of it unmapped, unobserved and unexplored. Essential to all life on Earth, the ocean and the marine ecosystems it supports, need to be protected, preserved and used more sustainably. To do that, we need to understand it. To understand it we need more data. To collect ocean data at scale, we need innovative approaches to ocean science.

A world first
Cue the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS), built by marine research organisation ProMare and powered by advanced IBM technologies – 400 years after the voyage of its famous namesake. When it attempts to cross the Atlantic in Spring 2021, with no human captain or onboard crew, MAS will help mark the start of the United Nation’s Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030). A coalition of technology and ocean enthusiasts – from engineers, to computer scientists and oceanographers – is behind this mission, and with it, they are pioneering new approaches to gathering data in a more sustainable, cost effective and flexible way.

“This is not a stunt or just for fun; there is a noble cause behind this,” said Don Scott, Chief Technology Officer of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship at IBM’s recent UK Think Digital Summit. “The primary role of this vehicle is to act as an open platform for ocean science; to collect data in transit. It provides oceanographers with an opportunity to have an intelligent system of collecting data that they can command to perform various operations. It removes some of the drudgery and incredible cost of collecting data at sea. And provides them with the data they need to better understand this incredible resource we have – the ocean.”

Don Scott, Director of Engineering at Submergence Group, CTO of MarineAi and the Mayflower Autonomous Ship

Unprecedented exploration
In fact, MAS has the potential to reengineer the entire oceanographic research space. It opens up the possibility of extending human capability in very dangerous, harsh environments, removing the burden of data collection and sharing the cognitive workload. For the scientific community, it may give them a permanent presence at sea, and an unprecedented way of exploring ocean life.

“The Mayflower Autonomous Ship will use acoustic sensors and machine learning to monitor the seas for whales and dolphins to inform scientists’ understanding about the health of today’s marine mammal populations,” says Jonathan Batty, IBM’s Head of Communications for the Mayflower Autonomous Ship. “We are also exploring AI and sensor driven approaches for analysing water in transit, rather than back in a lab. Not having people on board, forces us completely rethink the data gathering process. MAS is really pushing the boundaries of ocean science.”

AI Captain
MAS is bristling with technology designed to enable science and navigate the ship. All the functions traditionally done by humans will be performed by artificial intelligence, automation and edge computing. MAS will be under the command of an AI Captain that is able to identify and avoid hazards, obey regulations, ensure safety for itself and other vessels, all while successfully carrying out its given mission. On its first transoceanic voyage, MAS will need to reach the USA. In the future, that could mean cruising around the Mid-Atlantic Ridge for months on end.

“A captain’s role on a ship is the safe and efficient operation of a vehicle at sea,” explains Don Scott. “We’ve had to recreate that capability with AI and deterministic systems. This is where a lot of the IBM tech comes into play. The AI captain needs to build up a hazard map. To make a decision, it needs to know what’s happening in the environment. The way it does that is with the sensors.”

Flexibility & efficiency
Then there’s the scientific equipment on board and how it’ll be operated using advanced technology. How will MAS collect data with no human hands, no test tubes or nets? How do you automate the sample collection and turn it into insight? Exactly how is in the hands of ProMare, IBM and its research partners who are still unravelling some of these pertinent questions, according to Jonathan Batty.

“Pioneering new approaches to ocean science is a huge challenge, but it’s one that’s got the entire marine research community excited. MAS is part of a global movement towards autonomy at sea. It’s currently less about the data itself and more about how we collect it. If you have at your disposal a fleet of data collecting vessels, that’s a compelling proposition for many ocean industries – meteorology, for example, or energy companies that need to survey the ocean and install a new wind farm or oil pipe, or telecoms companies that have to install a new cable on the sea bed. Then there’s commercial shipping where an AI Captain could act as a guardian angel working in tandem with a human captain and crew to help keep them and their vessel safe at sea. There’s literally an ocean of opportunities for marine AI.”

Intelligence, autonomy & agility
But this is in no way a basket case. With its focus on scale, continuity and resilience, MAS is an example of how other industries can transform and overcome challenges using AI, edge computing and innovative cloud architecture. The business intelligence technologies used on MAS are tried and tested enterprise solutions that are already available to organisations of all shapes and sizes. The key is to build a fusion of intelligence, autonomy and agility into the heart of your operations—to ensure that even when a hazard or storm appears on the horizon, you are equipped to navigate around it and carry on.

Learn more from the IBM UK Think Digital Summit

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