Autonomous Solar Boat Will Recreate Mayflower's Historic Voyage on Its 400th Anniversary

Mayflower Autonomous Ship project

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship project aims to build and sail "the world’s first full-sized, fully autonomous unmanned ship" across the Atlantic in 2020.

A unique project that entails a partnership between Plymouth University, autonomous marine vessel company MSubs, and Shuttleworth Design, an award-winning yacht design firm, will seek to recreate the historic Mayflower voyages from Plymouth to North America, but this time in a decidedly high-tech manner. The 32.5-meter long Mayflower Autonomous Ship, or MAS, will be fully fueled by renewable energy sources (primarily solar and fuel cells) as well as traditional sail-power, and will carry "a variety of drones" with it, which will enable it to carry out experiments during the voyage.

Shuttleworth Design is designing and building scale models of the boat, which will then be tested in Plymouth University's Marine Building, after which it will be built by MSubs and tested over the course of about a year before it is launched for its historic voyage in 2020.

"A trimaran was chosen because it provides the most efficient hull form for low speed motoring. The hull configuration developed from a requirement to reduce windage, while keeping the solar array sufficiently high above the water to reduce wave impact. Without the need for accommodation, the centre hull has been kept low to the water and the wings and deck are separated and raised above on struts. This allows waves to break through the vessel and significantly reduces roll induced by wave impact. The outer hulls are designed to skim the water reducing resistance by 8%.
"The two masted soft sail rig will enable a top speed of around 20 knots. Each sail is simply controlled by a single sheet, and can furl into the boom and allow multiple reefing configurations for varying wind speeds. Stowing the sails while motoring reduces windage and eliminates shadows cast over the solar cells on the deck, while allowing the masts to stay standing to carry navigation lights." - Shuttleworth Design
Mayflower Autonomous Ship

The boat is considered a research vessel, collecting oceanographic, meteorological, and climate data, as well as serving as a test-bed for other technologies, such as navigation and autonomous sailing systems. The project is part of Plymouth University’s ‘Shape the Future’ fundraising campaign and is expected to cost an estimated £12 million, with initial funding from the university, MSubs, and the ProMare Foundation.

"MAS has the potential to be a genuine world-first, and will operate as a research platform, conducting numerous scientific experiments during the course of its voyage. And it will be a test bed for new navigation software and alternative forms of power, incorporating huge advancements in solar, wave and sail technology. As the eyes of the world follow its progress, it will provide a live educational resource to students – a chance to watch, and maybe participate in history in the making." - Professor Kevin Jones, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering at the University

The voyage across the Atlantic could take "as little as 7-10 days with optimal wind conditions," and once the initial crossing has been completed, the MAS could then be sent to circumnavigate the globe to continue its research and testing.

An interesting observation from MSubs Managing Director Brett Phaneuf is that of the disparity between the work being done with air- and land-based autonomous vehicles, and that being done in the marine sector.

"The civilian maritime world has, as yet, been unable to harness the autonomous drone technology that has been used so effectively in situations considered unsuitable for humans. It begs the question, if we can put a rover on Mars and have it autonomously conduct research, why can’t we sail an unmanned vessel across the Atlantic Ocean and, ultimately, around the globe? That’s something we are hoping to answer with MAS." - Phaneuf