The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) is the world’s first fully autonomous, AI-powered marine unmanned research ship. Credit: International Business Machines (IBM).
The MAS project was launched in 2015. Credit: International Business Machines (IBM).
The autonomous vessel is designed to conduct research and data collection tasks. Credit: International Business Machines (IBM).
The ship began its journey in April 2022. Credit: International Business Machines.
The autonomous ship operates using combinations of IBM technologies. Credit: International Business Machines (IBM).
Shuttleworth Design is responsible for the exterior styling, naval architecture, and structural engineering of the vessel. Credit: International Business Machines (IBM).

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS), previously known as the Mayflower Autonomous Research Ship (MARS), is the first full-size unmanned research ship designed for use as a research platform to conduct scientific experiments across the Atlantic Ocean.

Plymouth University, along with manned and unmanned vehicles provider MSubs and yacht designer Shuttleworth Design, launched the project in July 2015 to design and build the world’s first fully autonomous unmanned research ship. The project is part of Plymouth University’s “Shape the Future” fundraising campaign.

The university, MSubs and the ProMare Foundation, a non-profit company that promotes marine research, provided initial funding, while the remaining funds were raised through corporate and private sponsorship. In 2019, IBM joined a global consortium of partners led by ProMare for the project.

The ship’s construction took more than two years, followed by a one-year testing period. The ship was launched in September 2020.

The autonomous ship embarked on its transatlantic journey, commencing its voyage from Plymouth, UK in April 2022.

MAS is designed to carry drones and can be used as a test bed for new navigation software, renewable energy and propulsion systems for marine vessels.

Mayflower autonomous ship design and features

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship has an overall length of 15m, is 6.2m wide, has a beam of 16.8m, a draft of 0.875m and a sail area of 159m². It has a weight of 4,535kg (5t) and a capacity of 700kg for equipment.

The ship’s hull is made of glass/aramid/foam composites, while the deck is built using carbon/Nomex materials.

A trimaran design integrating a multi-hull structure is adopted for the ship to enable low-speed motoring. The hull configuration is designed to reduce windage (air resistance) and wave impact. The centre hull features a lower silhouette, while the wings and deck are separated and raised above the struts.

This arrangement allows waves to break through the vessel, resulting in a significant roll reduction. Outer hulls are designed to skim the water to reduce resistance by 8%.

The ship features a two-masted soft sail rig designed to work with either or both sails hoisted, leaving three sail combinations to be used for different wind speeds. Each sail is controlled by a single sheet, and the sails can be tightly packed into the deck to save space.

The arrangement ensures reduced windage when sailing and eliminates shadows cast over solar cells on the deck. It also allows the masts to stay standing to carry navigation lights.

Navigation and communication systems

 The ship operates without a human captain or crew, relying on an artificial intelligence (AI) captain powered by a MarineAI. The AI captain can independently detect and classify ships, buoys and other hazards using IBM’s computer vision technology.

The autonomous ship operates using combinations of IBM technologies such as IBM Visual Insights computer vision software, IBM Operational Decision Manager automation software and IBM edge computing.

It merges data from onboard systems such as radar, automatic identification system (AIS), GPS, nautical charts, attitude sensors, fathometer and vehicle management system (VMS), along with weather data provided by The Weather Company.

The RS24 radar system, which has five times higher resolution, helps to produce a high-fidelity map of the operating area by identifying potential hazards and fusing data from video recognition and AIS.

The AIS provides specific information about other ships in the area, such as their class, weight, speed and cargo.

The GPS navigation system provides MAS’s current location, heading, speed and course, while the nautical chart server provides geospatial information about the selected route.

The fathometer provides water depth measurements, while the VMS provides operational data such as MAS’s battery charge level, power consumption, communications and science payloads.

The MAS uses a Thales VesseLINK 700 terminal powered by Iridium Certus for onshore communication and tracking of autonomous boats.

Cameras and sensors

 MAS carries three research pods, each equipped with a variety of sensors and scientific equipment. These pods help obtain more information in areas including sea level mapping, ocean plastics, maritime cybersecurity and marine animal monitoring.

It is equipped with 15 Edge devices that collect, process and store ship data during the voyage, uploading it to onshore edge nodes. Six AI-powered cameras onboard provide visual input to an IBM computer vision system which identifies hazards such as cargo ships, fishing vessels and even partially submerged shipping containers floating in the water.

The autonomous vessel has more than 30 sensors including weather data and attitude sensors that assess the local sea state and a multi-parameter algae sensor that measures four algal pigments and provides insights into primary productivity and ocean health in the North Atlantic.


The Mayflower autonomous ship features dual 20kW electric propulsion motors, which produce fewer carbon emissions than diesel engines.

The power supply to computer systems and energy for propulsion motors onboard are assisted by lithium-ion phosphate batteries, in addition to the solar panels on the exterior of the ship.

The rig design enables MAS to sail at a top speed of 10 knots (kt). Its electric motoring speed is 12.5kt.

Mayflower autonomous ship applications

The autonomous ship, which carries one or more modular payloads, is suitable for conducting all types of meteorological, oceanographic and climate-related data gathering and research tasks.

It can also be used to research software for automated and autonomous operations of extended duration, advanced satellite communications, and co-operative behaviour between nested automated and autonomous vehicles that operate below, on or above the water simultaneously.

Partners and contractors involved

The MAS is designed and built by Aluship Technology, MarineAI and Marine AI’s GUARDIAN, with Thales and Iridium serving as the official communications partners. Iridium chose Applied Satellite Technology as its service provider.

Aluship was responsible for building the MAS hull and managing installation, painting and outfitting.

Shuttleworth Design was responsible for the exterior styling, naval architecture and structural engineering of the MAS vessel, which was finalised and tested in Plymouth University’s marine building.

Chelsea Technologies, an ocean technology company based in the UK, was selected as a research partner for Mayflower in April 2021. It provided an advanced multi-parameter algae sensor.

ChatBotBay, Cognition Foundry, ExactEarth, Fischer Panda, Gard P&I, Gill Instruments, Intellisense, Kawasaki, National Instruments, NVIDIA, Red Hat, Rotec Hydraulics, Sea Tow, Slingshot6,Teignbridge, The Weather Company, Turnchapel Wharf, UK Hydrographic OfficeVeripos, Videosoft, Vodafone, Wartsila, Weilbach and Xblue are among the companies that supplied equipment and services for the ship.

Chelsea Technologies, iXSea, RS Aqua, Jupiter Research Foundation, NOAA Research, Sequoia, Teledyne ISCO, The Human Interface Technologies Team, the University of Exeter, the University of Liverpool, the University of Newcastle, the University of Oxford and Valeport are research partners for the project.