Nova Scotia

Autonomous ship on transatlantic voyage diverted to Halifax for repairs

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship has docked in the Halifax harbour to undergo tests and repairs after its journey across the Atlantic.

Project started in 2016 with goal of reducing cost of marine data collection through artificial intelligence

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship was diverted to Halifax on its way to the U.S. from the U.K. It was docked in Dartmouth Cove Sunday. (Stephanie Blanchet/CBC)

A ship with no captain or crew on board has docked in the Halifax harbour to undergo tests and repairs after being diverted from its transatlantic voyage.

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship left from Plymouth, U.K., and was originally slated to arrive in Massachusetts, but was rerouted to Halifax due to computer and electrical issues about 1,600 kilometres west of the Azores.

"We had a decision to make where we were having sort of a series of intermittent, low-level failures," said Brett Phaneuf, the managing director of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship project.

"We ended up here in Halifax because it was the closest port of refuge when we started to experience problems."

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship is an AI-powered vessel with no crew or captain on board. (Submitted by IBM)

Phaneuf said the ship was running fine after passing through a heavy storm, but the team took an opportunity to get a tow from a Dominion Diving vessel about 300 kilometres from shore.

"They were headed out [and] we were headed in," Phaneuf said. "We met inside 200 miles and decided not to tempt fate."

Jamie Sangster, CEO of Leeway Marine, said he got a call from Phaneuf earlier this week when the ship started having difficulties. Leeway Marine co-ordinated the recovery.

"They set up all of their equipment in our office and they were controlling the vessel from there," Sangster said.

Project a success, director says

The project is a collaborative effort between IBM and ProMare, a marine research organization.

Phaneuf, also a founder of ProMare, said the project was a success despite the technical difficulties.

"It's across the Atlantic Ocean, which was the original intent," Phaneuf said. "Now, we know more than we knew before and the data on the vessel and the experience we've had is invaluable."

Brett Phaneuf is a founding board member of ProMare and managing director of the Mayflower project. (Stephanie Blanchet/CBC)

The project started in 2016 with a goal of reducing the cost of marine data collection through artificial intelligence, Phaneuf said.

"It's the first in a new type of research vessel," Phaneuf said.

A previous attempt to cross the Atlantic in 2020 was unsuccessful, Phaneuf said. 

Donald Scott is the project's lead software engineer. (Stephanie Blanchet/CBC)

The project's lead software engineer, Donald Scott, said the ship makes its own decisions while it navigates the ocean.

"We're always checking to see what its decisions are," Scott said. "The goal is that it doesn't need human intervention."

The ship will be docked in Halifax for about three weeks to undergo testing and repairs, then it will continue along the Atlantic Coast to Massachusetts and, eventually, Virginia, Phaneuf said.

He added that the ship will remain in the U.S. to be used for research and will visit Halifax "many times" in the future.

Phaneuf said the Mayflower Autonomous Ship's transatlantic voyage will help to inform further research and development of future research vessels.

With files from Stephanie Blanchet