The Online Boating and Maritime Exhibition

#8 - The Age of Autonomous Vessels

No Skipper Aboard


The Mayflower Autonomous Research Ship (Courtesy of Shuttleworth Design)

The Mayflower Autonomous Research Ship takes high-tech to the high seas. In 2020, it will be the first full-sized craft to cross the Atlantic without a single person aboard.


It was in late 1620 that the converted Dutch cargo ship Mayflower made its famous ocean crossing, carrying 102 pilgrims and a crew of about 30 from England to Cape Cod, Massachusetts on the east coast of the US.

Nearly 400 years later, a group of maritime designers, boat builders and scientists is preparing another vessel for its maiden transoceanic voyage of discovery. But there’s one major difference—when it sets sail in 2020, this boat will be completely unmanned.

While aerial and underwater drones have already crossed the Atlantic, the 32.5-meter-long, 16.8-meter-wide Mayflower Autonomous Research Ship (MARS) will be the first full-sized craft to cross from shore to shore without a single person aboard. Intended to commemorate the initial Mayflower voyage, the revolutionary trimaran will leverage the latest in solar, wind and wave technology, giving it almost unlimited range.

The Mayflower

Painting of the Mayflower

The MARS venture is a collaboration including Plymouth University’s Marine Institute, autonomous craft specialists MSubs, renowned multihull architects Shuttleworth Design and Promare, a non-profit corporation promoting marine research and exploration throughout the world.

A Multimillion-Pound Project

The design concepts for MARS are currently being finalized by Shuttleworth, which will test scale models in the university’s Marine Building. It will then take about two years to build the boat, with departure from Plymouth scheduled for sometime in the original Mayflower’s quadricentennial year.

The revolutionary trimaran will leverage the latest in solar, wind and wave technology.

While initial funding for MARS was provided by the university, MSubs and Promare, the multimillion-pound project is now looking for private and public sponsorship, and launched a crowdfunding campaign last October.

“Plymouth is a city well known for its progressive spirit of adventure,” said Marine Institute director Dr. Martin Attrill, in a press release. “The thing about great historical figures such as Scott, Drake and Shackleton is that they all went into the unknown and changed the world. The MARS is seeking to emulate that impact, creating history rather than re-creating it.”

The MARS team hopes their brainchild will demonstrate the full potential of remotely-controlled vessels, with beneficial crossovers into the crewless commercial ship sector. The team will monitor how the ship’s renewable energy, propulsion and other autonomous systems behave during the voyage. Derived data could aid the development of other vessels.

The Mayflower Autonomous Research Ship (Courtesy of

The Mayflower Autonomous Research Ship (Courtesy of Shuttleworth Design)

Complete Reliance on Renewable Energy

MSubs managing director, Brett Phaneuf, feels that innovation in the area of crewless ships is overdue. “The civilian maritime world hasn’t yet harnessed the autonomous drone technology that has already been used so effectively in other industrial and transport sectors,” says Phaneuf. “If we can put a rover on Mars and have it autonomously conduct research, surely we can sail an unmanned vessel across the Atlantic Ocean and, ultimately, around the globe.”

Featuring a fibreglass, aramid and foam composite hull and carbon composite deck, the MARS trimaran will have a top speed of between 15 to 20 knots. On less windy days, when its sails are automatically furled, the vessel’s solar-electric motor will propel it at lower speeds.

The Mayflower Autonomous Research Ship completely relies on renewable energy (Courtesy of

A folding wing system will increase the solar cell area by 40% in calm conditions (Courtesy of Shuttleworth Design)

Its complete reliance on renewable energy has driven innovation in the vessel’s design. The configuration of the triple hulls makes for efficient propulsion and provides greater stability and protection for the vessel’s solar panels.

“The solar cell area required for effective motoring is too large for efficient sailing and safety in rough seas,” says John Shuttleworth, head of Shuttleworth Design. “To overcome this, we are developing a folding wing system that will increase the solar cell area by 40% in calm conditions.”

No Humans to Carry out Repairs

During its initial voyage, which could take anywhere up to 10 months depending on weather conditions and currents, MARS will act as a roving science laboratory, collecting meteorological and oceanographic data and undertaking experiments. In some cases, these will involve drones stowed aboard. Navigation will be carried out by a combination of GPS and onboard collision-avoidance systems.

It will act as a roving science laboratory.

One of the major challenges after departure will be the complete absence of humans to carry out repairs.

“Structural, mechanical, electrical, corrosion and software issues are of far bigger concern to us than piracy or vandalism,” says Phaneuf.

“The sea can be punishing on equipment, so MARS will need to have redundant systems and be built as robustly as possible using the latest composite materials.”

About the Author

Daniel Allen is a writer and a photographer. His work has featured in numerous publications, including CNN, BBC, The National Geographic Traveller.

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