back to article Self-sailing Mayflower ship to have another crack at Atlantic crossing next year

The Mayflower, the crewless, autonomous ship built with the help of IBM, will try to sail across the Atlantic again next year, after its first attempt failed shortly after it left the UK for the US. Created by maritime non-profit Promare, the vessel was designed to not only steer itself but also collect data for scientists to …

  1. Denarius

    you mean

    a smart ship that didn't even have basic equipment monitoring that even old clunkers have ? Generator/alternator fail and you get a red light. Simple fuel flow analysis to indicate fuel loss or engine problem, let alone gas sensors to alert to fuel leaks. And this was a smart ship with AI ? How stupid can humans get ? How did it even get a license to operate ?

    1. Imhotep

      Re: you mean

      That puzzled me also, along with the statement that it took months to figure out that the generator was broken.

      It's hard to imagine how the problem with the generator wouldn't be almost immediately identified during trouble shooting. Must be more to the story there.

      1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

        Mechanical failure

        Just to clarify: from what's been reported, part of the generator fractured causing fuel to leak. The root cause of the leak, and subsequent failure of the generator, was what eluded them for a few months: they eventually found the break.

        The ship was reliant on the generator to get through rough conditions; solar power wouldn't be enough. So without the genny, it had to go back home.


        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: Mechanical failure

          A few months. Wow.

          I seriously doubt it would have taken someone who knew what they were doing more than a couple minutes. Busted fittings or cracked lines are an easy diagnosis, as are cracked fuel rails (or float bowls), bad injectors (or power valves) screwed up fuel pumps, clogged filters, split or pinched O-rings, and etc. Either spot the leak, or the bad injector (is that port on the exhaust manifold hot? No? Your injector isn't working) or find the section that doesn't hold pressure. Etc. It's hardly rocket surgery.

          As a side note, autopilot for boats have been around for over half a century. The unit I pulled out of my Monterey Clipper was a 1970's system based on LORAN C and made by Raytheon.

          1. Gene Cash Silver badge

            Re: Mechanical failure

            Sure... troubleshooting a generator would take me seconds... if it wasn't 500 miles away in the middle of the ocean.

            Then it becomes rather difficult.

            1. jake Silver badge

              Re: Mechanical failure

              It was three days into its voyage when the failure occurred. They limped it back into port. And then (as the article says) "After months of trying to figure out what went wrong, engineers discovered a metal component of the ship’s generator had fractured." followed by "The mishap caused diesel fuel to leak from the equipment, preventing it from working properly.".

              It wasn't out to sea, it was in port. It took them months to find and fix a leak in a fuel system.


              1. Antron Argaiv Silver badge

                Re: Mechanical failure

                Perhaps this is a part-time project? The engineers had other, primary, tasks unrelated to diagnosing problems on the boat?

          2. veti Silver badge

            Re: Mechanical failure

            This "a few months" figure is exaggerated. As previously reported on El Reg, the breakdown happened in mid June. Let's optimistically guess that it was back in port by the end of the month - but that would have been a convenient port, probably not its home. Then arrange for it to be towed back to Plymouth... I can imagine it likely didn't get home till August.

            Then conduct the autopsy, check and recheck all the systems, compare the physical evidence with telemetry to see how the monitoring worked... Let's say, two or three days before management had their comprehensive report.

            Then give management time to ask followup questions, talk to insurers and sponsors, and finally come to an agreement about what to announce to the press and public...

            Yeah. Seems about right to me.

    2. Adair Silver badge

      Re: you mean

      Isn't this going to always be a major problem with any attempt to build in autonomy in a 'ship' at all reliant on ICE technology - mechanically there are just too many points of failure?

      A purely electrical system may also be highly complex, but is mechanically relatively simple: an electric motor attached to a drive shaft and propeller - essentially a single moving part. Yeah, if it breaks you're stuffed, but the odds of it breaking are very manageable.

      Yes, lubrication has to be taken into account, but again, on such a simple mechanical system, is relatively manageable.

      In contrast an ICE system can have literally hundreds of points of potential mechanical failure, many of them relatively trivial for an on the spot human to fix, but fatal to the autonomous functioning of the machine.

  2. the Jim bloke

    Machine systems initially lack the sensor suite that evolved organisms have learnt they need

    Autonomous mining haul trucks have multiple obstacle detection systems, an integrated route planning and traffic management system,.. and nothing to let them know when they are on fire...

    This -probably- has been patched by now.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    They should put auto pilot on it. Chances are though, it will still hit an emergency vehicle with flashing lights on it.

  4. Headley_Grange Silver badge


    If another vessel observed it and couldn't see or raise anyone then they might assume that someone is in trouble and attempt a rescue. Assuming it has AIS, does any of the AIS information include the fact that it's autonomous and uncrewed?

    1. veti Silver badge

      Re: AIS?

      I would think the insurers would have thought of that, if no-one else did. If the ship was obviously or apparently in trouble on the open sea, it might be considered fair game for salvage.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Re: AIS?

        Reliability is going to be a huge issue with autonomous ships, along with piracy.

        Many ships are cheaply and poorly maintained and this will certainly be carried across to commercial autonomous ships with their attractively zero crewing, accommodation and life saving equipment costs.

        As this story indicates, even a trivial problem mid-ocean can be disastrous if there is no-one on board to tighten down a hatch or turn a screwdriver.

  5. Flywheel

    As for "Artie the seven-armed octopus"

    If that waste-of-bytes is an example of IBM's best efforts for AI, I'd say they're in a lot of trouble.

    You'd expect a chatbot on such a project to at least be able to tell why a problem had occurred and maybe tell you a bit about what they were doing to fix it, but no! Canned, limited and largely useless replies: maybe it was written in a pub on the back of a beermat.

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