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Business Lessons from an Autonomous Ship

By Andy Stanford Clark posted Tue March 23, 2021 01:01 AM


The events of the last year have revealed a new truism in business. No matter what the sector or geography, success increasingly depends on the resilience to survive and thrive in the face of external disruption.

Interestingly, and perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, a revolutionary new autonomous vehicle may help chart the course.

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) is a fully AI-driven marine research vessel currently undergoing extensive sea trails in Plymouth, UK ahead of a pioneering attempt to cross the Atlantic ocean in Spring 2021. With no humans on board, MAS will be piloted by an 'AI Captain' as it plies the seas gathering critical environmental data. The vessel is designed and constructed by the marine research non-profit organization,  ProMare, with IBM acting as lead science and technology partner.

With its sleek trimaran design and AI-powered automation technologies, MAS has been built to survive the harshest ocean conditions. She has three core capabilities which offer lessons to businesses for navigating risks:

  1. Intelligence

To help MAS to safely and effectively navigate at sea, a rich array of onboard devices and sensors constantly scan the horizon and ocean depths for changes or events that may indicate a hazard ahead.

IBM’s computer vision technology deciphers visual input streaming in from the ship’s six on-board video cameras. Trained on millions of maritime images, this vigilant AI-powered system can recognise a wide range of threats in the vicinity of the ship—whether physical outcroppings of land, floating debris, marine life, other vessels or various other potential perils.

One of the biggest threats to MAS is the ocean weather. To mitigate this, MAS leverages rich meteorological data from The Weather Company, an IBM Business, to plan its route and avoid adverse conditions. When network connectivity isn’t available, MAS’s on-board weather station keeps the weather data flowing.

MAS’s AI Captain is able to fuse these different datasets for constant situational awareness and rapid decision making—something business leaders increasingly need help with. As shock events throughout history have demonstrated, the seeming certainties on which we build our business models are anything but certain. Whether you’re managing a building or factory, civil infrastructure or highly regulated business processes, having a system in place for effectively monitoring and responding to changes in your environment is key.

  1. Autonomy

With no humans onboard, MAS must be able to operate independently—even in the middle of the ocean with limited or no network connectivity. To do so, MAS is equipped with advanced automation and edge computing technologies so it can act safely with little or no human intervention.

As the core part of the solution, the Operational Decision Manager (ODM) assesses all available data against a pre-determined set of maritime rules, enabling the AI Captain to make the best decision in response to real-time events.

ODM accesses a broad range of data sources, including the ship’s computer vision system, weather data, radar, sonar and other marine navigation systems to better understand the surrounding environment. And because it is programmed to follow two key sets of rules—International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs), as well as International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea—ODM ensures that MAS follows maritime regulations, while taking into account real-time data to optimize its decision making.

In the world of finance and commerce, ODM is a proven business solution for successfully analyzing customer activity and automating the process of recommending relevant offers and services. Such AI-powered automation also helps identify possible cases of fraud, as well as enhancing privacy by reducing the amount of personal and sensitive information that staff members are required to process.

    1. Agility

    Because the ship will not have access to high-bandwidth cloud services during the voyage, the fully autonomous system will rely on NVIDIA Jetson AGX Xavier for data processing at the edge.

    Most large businesses have decentralized computing architectures and, similar to MAS, parts of the network need to be able to process data locally without uploading it to the cloud. This is crucial for autonomy and rapid decision making which cannot afford to be slowed by network latency.

    NVIDIA’s powerful and lightweight edge devices provide the compute power needed for a ship, car, oil rig, or piece of equipment to operate independently, even without network connectivity. When a connection with the network cloud is made, performance data is uploaded, system updates are downloaded, and the autonomous system continues.

    The ship has high levels of redundancy built into it, meaning that it has fault tolerant systems that are both isolated and duplicated in order to reduce to chance of a single-point failure. And rather than mindlessly following a pre-charted course, MAS’s AI Captain evaluates all available data and constantly updates the ship’s route and speed, second by second.

    Lessons for Business

    MAS is just one small ship in a large ocean, but it serves as a case study for business resilience and continuity. Fortunately, the automation, AI and edge computing technologies used on MAS are tried and tested enterprise solutions that are already available to organizations of all types and sizes. The key is to build a fusion of intelligence, autonomy and agility into the heart of your operations—to ensure that even when a hazard or opportunity appears on the horizon, you are equipped to navigate it and sail into the future.

    The authors, Andy Stanford-Clark, IBM CTO, IBM UK & Ireland and Guilhem Molines, ODM Product Architect, are speaking on the Mayflower Autonomous Ship at the NVIDIA GTC conference on April 15th 2021. Join us to learn more about the Mayflower Autonomous Ship. 


    1 comment



    Fri March 26, 2021 11:03 AM

    Wow. This is fascinating. Thanks for sharing with the community!