The trial, which will take place this month on a manned research vessel off the coast of Plymouth in the UK, will evaluate how the “AI Captain” uses cameras, AI, and edge computing systems to safely navigate around ships, buoys, and other ocean hazards that it is expected to meet during its transatlantic voyage in September 2020. Sailing from Plymouth, UK to Plymouth, Massachusetts with no human captain or onboard crew, it will become one of the first full-sized, fully autonomous vessels to cross the Atlantic.

The mission, say the organizations, will further the development of commercial autonomous ships and help transform the future of marine research.

“While the autonomous shipping market is set to grow from $90 billion today to over $130 billion by 2030, many of today’s autonomous ships are really just automated – robots which do not dynamically adapt to new situations and rely heavily on operator override,” says Don Scott, CTO of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship. “Using an integrated set of IBM’s AI, cloud, and edge technologies, we are aiming to give the Mayflower the ability to operate independently in some of the most challenging circumstances on the planet.”

The MAS will rely on IBM’s advanced AI and edge computing systems to sense, think, and make decisions at sea, even with no human intervention. With the three hulls of the trimaran MAS currently reaching the final phase of construction in Gdansk, Poland, a prototype of the AI Captain will first take to the water on a manned vessel – the Plymouth Quest – a research ship owned and operated by the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK.

The March sea trials, which will be conducted under the eye of the Plymouth Quest’s human crew, will help determine how the Mayflower’s AI Captain performs in real-world maritime scenarios, and provide valuable feedback to help refine the ship’s machine learning models, which have been trained over the past two years using over a million nautical images collected from cameras in the Plymouth Sound in the UK as well as open source databases.

To meet the processing demands of machine learning, the team used an IBM Power AC922 fueled by IBM Power9 CPUs and NVIDIA V100 Tensor Core GPUs – the same technologies behind the world’s smartest AI supercomputers. Now, say the organizations, using IBM’s computer vision technology, the Mayflower’s AI Captain should be able to independently detect and classify ships, buoys and other hazards such as land, breakwaters and debris.

During its transatlantic voyage, the MAS will use a fully autonomous IBM edge computing system powered by several onboard NVIDIA Jetson AGX Xavier devices. While at sea, the Mayflower will process data locally on NVIDIA Jetson, increasing the speed of decision making and reducing the amount of data flow and storage on the ship.

“Edge computing is critical to making an autonomous ship like the Mayflower possible,” says Rob High, VP and CTO for Edge Computing, IBM. “The Mayflower needs to sense its environment, make smart decisions about its situation and then act on these insights in the minimum amount of time – even in the presence of intermittent connectivity, and all while keeping data secure from cyber threats. IBM’s edge computing solutions are designed to support mission-critical workloads like the Mayflower Autonomous Ship, extending the power of the cloud and the security and flexibility of Red Hat Enterprise Linux all the way out to the edge of the network, even in the middle of the ocean.”

During the voyage, the AI Captain will draw on IBM’s rule management system (Operational Decision Manager – ODM) to follow the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs) as well as recommendations from the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). Used widely across the financial services industry, ODM is particularly suited to the Mayflower project as it provides a completely transparent record of its decision-making process, avoiding ‘black box’ scenarios.

The AI Captain will also use forecast data from The Weather Company (an IBM subsidiary) to help make navigation decisions. A Safety Manager function (running on RHEL) will review all of the AI Captain’s decisions to ensure they are safe – for the Mayflower, and for other vessels in its vicinity.

The March sea trials will take place for approximately two months on the Plymouth Quest with the ship’s human captain and crew at the helm. In the first stage of testing, the Mayflower AI Captain’s inference engine will receive input from the Quest’s radar, AIS, GPS, and navigation system, as well as data about visibility. Cameras, computer vision, edge and autonomy capabilities will be added in the next phase of testing from April.


Related articles:
IBM joins autonomous ship project
Autonomous ship guidance system combines probabilistic modeling, AI
Intel, Rolls-Royce partner on autonomous shipping


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