Voyage aims to highlight the possibilities of autonomous ocean science

Mayflower Autonomous Ship in historic dock – credit Bob Stone, Human Interface Technology Team, University of Birmingham

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) had been due to set sail from Plymouth this year and attempt to complete a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed its departure, however it is now hoped the ship will make its way from Plymouth, England to Plymouth, Massachusetts in the Spring of 2021.

In advance of that, and marking the actual anniversary of the Mayflower's departure, a naming ceremony is taking place in the city to give people the first opportunity to see the new ship in the flesh. 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.

The project is being coordinated through a consortium headed by marine research organisation ProMare. The research element of the voyage is being coordinated by the University, IBM and ProMare, and will focus on core areas including marine mammal detection, marine plastics and ocean chemistry.

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.”

The naming ceremony is one of a number of events taking place in Plymouth to mark the anniversary of the Mayflower's sailing, with others including a roundtable event at Oceansgate in the city, featuring officials from across the city, including the University's Director of Industrial and Strategic Partnerships Kevin Forshaw and Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Director of the Marine Institute.

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.

Hydrophone sensors secured from RS Aqua Ltd will be mounted to the vessel, with the data they capture hopefully being transmitted in real-time back to Plymouth.

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

The research also aims to develop methods for detecting and classifying marine mammal sounds from autonomous surface vessels that can be applied more broadly.

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

<p>Dr Clare Embling hydrophone research<br></p>
<p>Dr Clare Embling hydrophone research<br></p>

Dr Clare Embling hydrophone research


Dr Clare Embling hydrophone research<br></p>

Marine plastics

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

Water sampling devices will be fitted on the vessel, and the samples collected would be analysed in the University’s ultraclean plastics lab.

That work is being led by Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit, and will be carried out by a mix of academics, students and graduates.

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.

It has pioneered research into microbeads in cosmetics, fibres from the laundry cycle and, most recently, tyre particles in rivers and oceans – but also plastic pollution in the deep seas and the Arctic.

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 in the lab.

Find out more about our award-winning marine litter research

<p>Microplastics on the beach</p>
<p>Professor Richard Thompson and Dr&nbsp;Winnie Courtene-Jones working in the labs.</p>
<p>Close-up of a study of microplastics.</p>
<p>Professor Richard Thompson</p>

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

<p>Dr Simon Ussher in the labs.</p>
<p>Dr Simon Ussher working in the labs.<br></p>
<p>Close-up of Dr Simon Ussher working in the lab.</p>
<p>Dr Simon Ussher working in the labs.<br></p>

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 400: Legacies and Futures online curation

The Legacies and Futures digital curation seeks to frame and interrogate colonial heritage. This project re-frames the more familiar Mayflower narrative within more flexible, inclusive and varied parameters.

In 2020, we remember the departure of the Mayflower from Plymouth harbour four hundred years ago. Plymouth was a final stop on a journey to North America, a final stop on a voyage to colonise and conquer the people and landscapes of North America.

This curation, which includes commentary and insights from Indigenous and non-Indigenous contributors, collects and presents new observations about the way that we narrate, visualise and remember the past.

Find out more about the project

The Mayflower Steps

The Mayflower Steps


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