Decision Management (ODM, ADS)

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IBM Business Automation Software to Help Power the Mayflower Autonomous Ship Across The Atlantic

By DAVID Jenness posted Tue March 16, 2021 09:26 AM


I grew up less than 10 miles from Plymouth Rock, the small chunk of granite made famous as the first landing spot of the Pilgrims in 1620 as they stepped off the Mayflower to their new home in New England. No matter that the Mayflower actually stopped first in Provincetown at the outer tip of Cape Cod; let’s not ruin a good story!

As teenagers, a friend and I snuck into our school’s costume shop and grabbed some Pilgrim hats and boots with buckles and, on weekends, we’d dress up as John Alden and Miles Standish and head down to the rock to fleece the tourists. “Hear ye! Hear ye! Gather round to learn what life was like in 1620!” Those hats were huge, so when we’d them pass around, we could rake in $40 in an hour and that was real money at the time.

I always thought we were getting away with something until one day, my grandfather explained that I am descended from Philip Delano, who came to Plymouth in 1621 on the second ship to arrive to the Colony (the Fortune) and became John Alden’s neighbor. So actually, those tourists were getting a real life descendant of the Pilgrims!

I hadn’t thought about those days for a long time, until I heard that IBM is involved in an endeavor to build an autonomous, crewless vessel that would cross the Atlantic, trace the route of the original Mayflower, and perform vital ocean research during the voyage. It’s called the “Mayflower Autonomous Ship,” MAS for short.

The whole idea was dreamed up as a way to celebrate the 400th Anniversary of the first Mayflower crossing, not with a look to the past, but a look to the future. I was not surprised to learn that the driving force behind the project is a neighbor of mine growing up, Brett Phaneuf, who is co-director of the MAS project. While his ancestors only arrived to the Plymouth Colony in 1628, I guess I’ll have to acknowledge his Pilgrim pedigree. In all seriousness, Mr. Phaneuf is a serial entrepreneur and IBM Champion with a knack for finding a way to blend innovation and history and this one is a beauty.

Built by IBM and ProMare, the 50-foot trimaran has “no one on board, no captain, no place to eat, no place to sleep,” said Phaneuf. “It’s sophisticated artificial intelligence that will captain the ship across the ocean.”

The plan was originally for MAS to set out from Plymouth, England on Sept. 16, 1620, 400 years to the day after the original Mayflower left the same port. However, the pandemic delayed construction of the autonomous ship, and the $1.3 million vessel’s trans-Atlantic voyage has been postponed until 2021.

Working with marine research organization ProMare, IBM has created a vessel packed with sophisticated GPS navigational systems and the latest IBM artificial intelligence (AI) systems, cheekily known as the “AI Captain” (“Aye aye, Captain”). But here’s where IBM Business Automation comes in. As soon as the AI Captain receives actionable data from on-board cameras, radar, sonar, AIS and other equipment, it draws on IBM Operational Decision Manager (ODM) to follow International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs) and other seagoing conventions.  So the same software that provides a transparent record of decision-making processes to the financial services industry to adhere to financial regulations, is safely guiding the modern Mayflower through the dangerous Atlantic Ocean.

Learn more about the Mayflower Autonomous Ship project here and keep your ear to news as she sets sail this Spring.




1 comment



Fri March 26, 2021 07:08 PM

I love this story. It's a great illustration of how ML/AI can be powerful but only really when combined with business rules to digitize decision-making! The AI Captain uses all sorts of powerful ML but also uses rules to make the right decisions every time.   
In our everyday work with clients, we see the same. The best business decision automation projects are driven by the same marriage of ML technologies and business rules. I wrote about this here: