Will MARS be the first unmanned ship to cross the Atlantic?

13 August 2015• Written by Risa Merl

Will yachts in the future need a captain at the helm? This question is being put to the test by the world’s first superyacht-size unmanned ship, the Mayflower Autonomous Research Ship, which will cross the Atlantic in 2020.

Codenamed MARS, the 32.5 metre trimaran yacht is fully autonomous and will be powered by advanced wind and solar technology.

If MARS looks familiar, it’s because she comes from Shuttleworth Design, the same forward-thinking design team who created the futuristic superyacht Adastra.The project is being developed in a collaboration between Shuttleworth Design, Plymouth University and autonomous craft specialists MSubs. The multi-million pound project part of Plymouth University’s “Shape the Future” fundraising campaign.

"While advances in technology have propelled land and air-based transport to new levels of intelligent autonomy, it has been a different story on the sea," says Brett Phaneuf, managing director of MSubs. "The civilian maritime world has, as yet, been unable to harness the autonomous drone technology that has been used so effectively in situations considered unsuitable for humans.

"It begs the question, if we can put a rover on Mars and have it autonomously conduct research, why can't we sail an unmanned vessel across the Atlantic Ocean and, ultimately, around the globe? That's something we are hoping to answer with MARS."

MARS is planned to sail across the Atlantic on the 400th anniversary of the original Mayflower sailing from Plymouth to North America. The new Mayflower is on a different sort of pilgrimage to prove that yachts can function independently of human assistance.

“"Our approach to developing the concept was to fully explore and take advantage of the opportunities that arise from not having to carry crew, and to create a vessel that is capable of using only renewable energy,”says designers John and Orion Shuttleworth.

The trimaran hull form was chosen for its efficiency at low speed motoring, with the specific configuration designed to reduce windage while keeping the solar array high enough above the water. A folding wing system allows the solar cell area to be increased by 40 per cent in calm conditions, and the two-masted soft sail rig allows for various sail configurations. MARS is predicted to have a top speed of 20 knots under sail.

Removing accommodations means the centre hull can be low to the water while the wings and decks are separated and raised. The outer hulls can skim the water, reducing resistance by eight per cent.

The project is well underway, and conversations are already being had with classifications societies and the Coastguard.

While MARS won’t have any human assistance as she crosses the Atlantic, the research ship will be accompanied by robotic friends, carrying drones that will be deployed to carry out experiments during the voyage.

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