One of the earliest history lessons children learn in the United States is the story of the Mayflower. In July of 1620, the Mayflower left London with 65 passengers along the Thames River to meet up with the Speedwell that had left from Holland. Shortly after the two ships began their journey to America, the Speedwell began to face numerous problems. Both ships returned to Plymouth, England, where 20 passengers aboard the Speedwell joined the Mayflower. Measuring approximately 100ft long, the overcrowded Mayflower completed a treacherous 10 week journey, setting anchor off the coast of present day Cape Cod, MA on November 12, 1620. The Pilgrims were woefully unprepared for the journey across the Atlantic and the harsh winter they were to face. Only half of the Pilgrims survived, and it would have been far less if not for the help they received from the native Wampanoag People.
It is a story that nearly all Americans are well acquainted with. For the 400 year anniversary of the Mayflower’s journey, IBM and ProMare developed a project that would launch another ship across the Atlantic Ocean. This ship, however, would meet the standards of today’s modern technology and be fully autonomous and unmanned. The drone, dubbed the Mayflower 400 (MAS400), is over “100ft in length the Mayflower Autonomous Research will be powered by state-of-the-art wind and solar technology. The revolutionary trimaran vessel will carry on board a variety of drones through which it will conduct experiments during its voyage,” states the project’s website. The drone is able to travel at speeds up to 10 knots, has a backup generator, and cost $1.3 million to build.
The MAS400 is not the first drone vessel to be crossing the Atlantic, there are in fact many drones traversing the world’s oceans at all times conducting scientific research. These drones can be on the water surface, like Saildrone, or below like the Sentry made by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. But much like the original Mayflower, the drone version faced several challenges. The MAS400 was set to debark from Plymouth, UK in September of 2020 for a 3 week journey, but complications due to technical glitches delayed the mission.
On June 15, 2021, the MAS400 finally left Plymouth, only to return 3 days later due to mechanical issues. After scrambling to get the drone in top shape, the MAS400 once again set sail for its autonomous transatlantic trip. The original plan was to have the drone travel the same route as the Mayflower. The team had to replan programming the drone to travel from England to Virginia. Along the way, the drone once again ran into a problem, this time with the generator. The drone was remotely programmed to Portugal’s Azores islands. An engineer from ProMare flew out to fix the generator before sending the MAS400 back on her way.
It seemed as if the drone was finally on track until more generator glitches occurred in mid May. The team rerouted the drone again, this time to complete its mission landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia. On May 30, 2022, the MAS400 was towed to shore due to maritime drone regulations. “The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) is a highly innovative project to design, build and sail the world’s first full-sized, fully autonomous unmanned ship across the Atlantic Ocean,” states the project website. “It is hoped the sailing of this ground-breaking new ship will reflect the voyage undertaken 400 years ago when the original Mayflower left Plymouth to journey to America.”