If you should encounter a crewless ship out on the Atlantic Ocean in a few years, don’t worry about it being the ghostly Flying Dutchman … it may be the Mayflower, however. No, not the square-rigger that brought Pilgrims to America, but the Mayflower Autonomous Research Ship (MARS). Plans call for the wind- and solar-powered trimaran to sail itself from Plymouth, England to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 2020 – the 400th anniversary of the original ship’s journey – carrying out a variety of research projects along the way.

The ship is the focus of Project MARS, a collaborative effort involving Plymouth University, autonomous craft specialist MSubs and yacht manufacturer Shuttleworth Design.

It will be 32.5 meters long and 16.8 meters across (106.6 x 55.1 ft), with a glass/aramid/foam composite hull and a carbon composite deck. Using either or both of its two sails, MARS will be able to move at a speed of up to 20 knots (37 km/h or 23 mph). On less breezy days when the sails are automatically stowed belowdeck, its solar-powered electric motor will still take it up to 12.5 knots (23 km/h or 14 mph). The solar cells should be able to generate enough current that if traveling at 5 knots (9 km/h or 6 mph) under motor power, the ship’s range will be unlimited. Some of those cells will be on a folding wing, that will only open under calm sea conditions.

Navigation will be via a combination of GPS, and onboard collision-avoidance systems.

According to MSubs’ Brett Phaneuf, the crossing could conceivably be completed in 7 to 10 days, although it may end up lasting several months depending on what tasks MARS is put to along the way. Areas of research that it will be conducting include meteorology, oceanography and climatology.

"It is intended to house one or more modular payload bays, much like a Space Shuttle, into which a diverse range of mission equipment will be fitted to support the various research tasks," he tells us. "Equally important, we will be conducting research on renewable energy and propulsion systems for marine vessels, research on the software for automated and autonomous operations for extended duration, advanced satellite communications, and cooperative behaviour between nested automated and autonomous vehicles operating below, on and above the water simultaneously."

That’s right, plans call for the drone ship to be launching and retrieving drones of its own. Before it sets out across the Atlantic, however, MARS will be subjected to a year of on-the-water testing. In the meantime, commercial partners are being sought to help fund the venture.

View gallery - 4 images