Credit: Oliver Dickinson for IBM/ProMare

Credit: Oliver Dickinson for IBM/ProMare

The University of Plymouth is aiming to highlight the future potential of autonomous ocean science as part of a pioneering voyage commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower.

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS), which left Plymouth on Tuesday 15 June, is attempting to complete a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

If successful, it will be one of the first self-navigating, full-sized vessels to cross the Atlantic and opens the door on a new era of autonomous research ships.

However, during its journey data from the ship will be relayed back to scientists from the University to support research on core areas including marine mammal detection, marine plastics and ocean chemistry.

The project is being coordinated through a consortium headed by marine research organisation ProMare, with the research element of the voyage being led by the University, IBM and ProMare.

With no human captain or onboard crew, the research vessel uses IBM’s automation, AI and edge computing technologies to sense, think and make decisions at sea.

People from all over the world can follow the ship’s progress via the mission dashboard which includes live video, maps and data streaming.

Professor Kevin Jones, Plymouth Pioneer

Professor Kevin Jones, Executive Dean of Science and Engineering at the University, said:

“Through vessels such as the Mayflower Autonomous Ship and our very own CETUS, the University is at the forefront of using unmanned vessels for cutting-edge ocean science. This technology has the undoubted potential to be a game changer in the field, enabling us to capture data which can transform our understanding of the oceans and the impact climate change and other factors are having on them. The wider project is also an example of how science, industry and the community can come together for mutual benefit, something we are also championing through our involvement in initiatives such as the Marine Business Technology Centre and Smart Sound Plymouth.”

Cutting-edge marine research using the Mayflower Autonomous Ship

Marine mammal detection

The University will use the data supplied by the MAS project to build on its existing research into the monitoring of marine mammals, their behaviour and the impacts on them from human activity.

Scientists from the Marine Vertebrate Research Group, working in partnership with IBM, hope to detect marine mammals in the open ocean, in locations that are otherwise hard to survey and where very little is known about distributions or behaviour.

A hydrophone sensor secured from RS Aqua Ltd has been mounted to the vessel, and using Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology developed by IBM, whale and dolphin vocalisations will be automatically identified and reported in real-time back to Plymouth, along with short samples of sound.

These will be validated and analysed by Associate Professor in Marine Ecology Dr Clare Embling and Associate Professor of Marine Conservation Dr Simon Ingram, supported by a combination of undergraduate and postgraduate students.

The University’s previous research in this field has used acoustics to examine the distribution and behaviour of cetaceans and fish to aid in conservation and management.

It has also developed new methods of modelling to demonstrate the impacts on marine mammals of increasing noise in the sea from shipping routes and marine renewable energy devices.

Dr Embling said:

“The overall aim is to explore new methods of monitoring marine mammals far from land where knowledge is sparse. This will be essential for ensuring that ever-expanding human activity in the marine environment does not adversely impact on its many and varied species.

“The use of autonomous marine vessels, combined with hydrophone sensors, represents an exciting next step and could potentially offer exciting insights into the behaviour of mammals, and demonstrate how advanced technology could be used to pioneer research in this field in the future.”

Watch a video below of Dr Embling discussing her research in the field

Find out more about our Marine Vertebrate Research Group

Dr Clare Embling hydrophone research
Dr Clare Embling hydrophone research
Dr Clare Embling hydrophone research
Dr Clare Embling hydrophone research

Marine plastics

Furthering the world-leading expertise of the University of Plymouth, the MAS project will enable scientists to gather data on levels of microplastics found across the Atlantic and any particular hotspots of plastic pollution.

This will be done using pioneering holographic cameras developed by Associate Professor in Marine Physics, Dr Alex Nimmo-Smith, and supplied by Sequoia Scientific, Inc.

Connected to the ship’s water sampling device, it will capture footage of tiny particles being encountered by the vessel and distinguish whether they are plankton, microplastics or other types of ocean debris.

The findings will then be assessed by Dr Nimmo-Smith and Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit, and added to the expertise body of microplastics research led by the University.

The University of Plymouth is a world leader in marine litter science, and received the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2020 in recognition of its work to demonstrate the abundance of microplastics in our oceans.

Professor Thompson, the first scientist to coin the phrase microplastics in relation to marine litter, said:

“Plastic pollution is recognised as a global crisis and the MAS project will help to further a deeper understanding of this global issue and ways in which it can be addressed. With over 700 species coming into contact with marine litter and it being found from the poles to the equator, greater understanding is critical.

“The MAS project will offer the opportunity to reveal data about plastic levels in specific locations once the voyage itself has finished, but also demonstrate the potential for autonomous vessels to assess plastic debris in various parts of the world’s oceans.”

Watch a video below of Professor Thompson and Dr Winnie Courtene-Jones discussing their research

Find out more about our award-winning marine litter research

Alex Nimmo-Smith's LISST Holo device
Professor Richard Thompson and Dr Winnie Courtene-Jones working in the labs.
Close-up of a study of microplastics.
Dr Alex Nimmo-Smith, Associate Professor in Marine Physics

Ocean chemistry

The University is part of an international team brought together by IBM to develop cutting edge Hypertaste sensors that will be deployed on the Mayflower Autonomous Ship.

Combining multi-electrode sensors with IBM artificial intelligence, it will provide real-time assessments of the major ions present in sea water at various locations across the Atlantic.

Dr Simon Ussher, Associate Professor of Marine and Analytical Chemistry, is working as a consultant with the team and hopes to use its data to build on his existing research into the nutrients in sea water and how they are changing.

Dr Ussher and colleagues at the University played a key role in the £10.5 million UK Shelf Sea Biogeochemistry (SSB) research programme, co-funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The team showed that lowered summer concentrations of iron in the shallow seas overlying our continental shelf could be having a detrimental effect on the growth of phytoplankton, the living ‘canopy’ of the marine environment and the base of the marine food web.

Dr Ussher said:

“Having a clear appreciation of the elements present within seawater – and how concentrations might be shifting – has never been more important. Human-induced climate change is having a marked impact on all areas of the marine environment, and the shifts in ocean chemistry are causing significant change to populations of plankton – the base of the marine food web.

“The MAS project unites aspects of analytical chemistry and artificial intelligence, and will provide us with daily data and trends that help to assess the impact of climate change and the health of the oceans.”

Watch a video below of Dr Ussher discussing his research in the lab.

Find out more about our work on Marine Biogeochemistry

Dr Simon Ussher
Close-up of Dr Simon Ussher working in the lab.
Dr Simon Ussher working in the labs.
Dr Simon Ussher working in the labs.
THE Impact Rankings SDG14 Life Below Water 2021 Top 10 large

World leaders

We are ranked the number one university globally in 2021 for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal number 14: life below water.
The award recognises the quality of our marine research and teaching as well as our efforts to reduce the impact of campus activities on the marine environment. The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings are the only global performance tables that assess universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Reconsidering the Mayflower

The passengers onboard the original Mayflower had little idea of what they were about to endure, and would have had no idea that their journey, and their experiences of settlement, would become a narrative of national origins.

They certainly couldn’t have contemplated that 400 years on, a vessel sharing the name Mayflower would make the same journey, without a single soul on board, and powered not by sails but by solar power.

400 years later, Dr Kathryn Gray, Associate Professor in Early American Literature, reflects on our assumptions about the Mayflower's voyage and its consequences.

Read Kathryn's opinion piece on the Mayflower

Mayflower ship

Marine degree courses, research and education – in Britain's Ocean City

Students consistently choose Marine at Plymouth over other locations for courses related to the sea. Plymouth boasts one of the most prestigious clusters of marine teaching, research and educational organisations in Europe.

Top 10 University for Geology, Environmental, Earth and Marine Sciences in the UK
– Times Higher Young University rankings 2019

Find out about studying marine at Plymouth

SRRDG explore the programme Plymouth Hoe