Dignitaries, seafarers and scientists were gathering in Plymouth, England, on Wednesday to mark the 400th anniversary of the departure of the Mayflower, the ship that carried a group of Puritan settlers to a new life across the Atlantic Ocean. But today’s journey also is a celebration of the future: autonomous ships.

Four centuries to the day since the ship sailed out of Plymouth harbor, dignitaries from the United States, the U.K. and the Netherlands — home to some of the Pilgrims — are launching a new Mayflower. Unlike its wooden predecessor, this vessel is a sleek, high-tech trimaran powered by the sun and steered by artificial intelligence.

The ship’s creators, marine research organization ProMare and computing giant IBM, hope the autonomous Mayflower will be the first in a new generation of crewless high-tech vessels that can explore parts of oceans too difficult or dangerous for people to reach.

Andy Stanford-Clark, chief technology officer for IBM U.K. and Ireland, said the ship’s launch “is a very exciting stage of the journey towards autonomous shipping” that could pave the way for AI-driven cargo ships and water taxis as well as research ships.

“Able to scan the horizon for possible hazards, make informed decisions and change its course based on a fusion of live data, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship has more in common with a modern bank than its 17th century namesake,” Stanford-Clark added. “With its ability to keep running in the face of the most challenging conditions, this small ship is a microcosm for every aspiring 21st century business.”

IBM image

Inside the MAS autonomous ship..

The 1620 journey would launch a new chapter of expansion and empire for Europe, and bring disaster for the Native peoples who had lived in the Americas for millennia.

Adrian Vinken, chairman of Britain’s Mayflower 400 commemorations, called it “arguably the most influential sea voyage in global maritime history.”

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship, which will get a snappier name at Wednesday’s ceremony, is set to follow in its forebearer’s wake by crossing the Atlantic from Plymouth, England, to Plymouth, Massachusetts, but for the purpose of a marine research trip instead of founding a colony — and without people aboard.

“MAS400.com is one of the most advanced ocean mission web portals ever built,” said Fredrik Soreide, Scientific Director of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship project.

“Protecting the ocean depends on our ability to engage the public in important matters affecting its health. This MAS400 portal is designed to do exactly that and tell people where the ship is, what speed it’s travelling at, what conditions it’s operating in and what science we are conducting. Users can even help Artie the Octopus fish out surgical masks, cigarette butts and other increasingly common forms of ocean litter from a virtual ocean of facts and data.”

The coronavirus pandemic upended planned trans-Atlantic commemorations for the original Mayflower’s anniversary and delayed the voyage of its latest namesake until 2021.

The sun-powered trimaran will undertake six months of sea trials and short trips before setting out across the Atlantic next spring on a trip to measure ocean health: assessing the impact of climate change, measuring micro-plastic pollution and studying populations of whales and dolphins.

IBM image

The new Mayflower

Along the way, its AI captain will have to make complex decisions in response to wind, waves, vessels and unknown surprises.

“We’re quietly confident we’re going to make it,” Stanford-Clark said. “Ultimately, the sea will decide.”

The ship’s launch in Plymouth, 200 miles (320 kilometers) southwest of London, is part of 400th anniversary commemorations involving the British, Americans, Dutch and the Wampanoag people, who are native to what is now New England.

In 1620, the Wampanoag helped the exhausted English settlers from the Mayflower survive their first winter. But soon colonial expansion, conflict and new diseases were having a devastating impact on North America’s indigenous peoples.

Wampanoag stories have been marginalized on past Mayflower anniversaries, but they are playing a big part in events and exhibitions this time around.

’It’s going a long way to lend balance to this story,” said Paula Peters, a Wampanoag writer and educator who has helped create anniversary exhibitions, including one opening later this month at The Box museum in Plymouth.

“We don’t expect people to take one side or the other,” Peters said. “But certainly the story of the Mayflower is one that really can’t be told without telling also the story of the Wampanoag.″

Wednesday’s anniversary was meant to be the culmination of international Mayflower commemorations. Instead, it’s the start of a year of events.

The voyage plays a central role in American history, but is less studied in Britain. Mayflower 400 chief executive Charles Hackett said he had been surprised how much the Mayflower story “really resonates and is important to different communities” in Britain, from the towns that nurtured the Puritans to Harwich, the eastern England port where the Mayflower was built.

He thinks the 17th century voyage, with “people desperately crossing oceans,” also strikes a chord with many in our era of global pandemic, climate crisis and mass migration.

“Half the passengers … were economic migrants,” he said. “This is the start of a huge migration away from England.”