Is Mayflower Autonomous Research Ship (MARS) the Future of Shipping?

^ Graphical Representation of the Mayflower Autonomous Research Vessel (MARS) Image Credit Shuttleworth Design at

Just What the Doctor Ordered

In marked contrast to the land and air transport segments that have taken giant leaps in automation technology in the recent past, the civilian maritime world remains nautical miles away from such advances.

This is exactly what the Mayflower Autonomous Research Vessel (MARS) seeks to change by promising to be the world’s first full-sized, totally automated unmanned ship to dare cross an ocean on its own. Is this the trigger the automation ship technology so badly wants?

The philosophy behind the MARS is to harness the opportunities presented by crewless operations. Because it is unmanned and propelled by cutting edge solar and wind technology, the MARS can sail endlessly. The MARS will carry onboard a host of drones for related research.

ProjectMARS is developing the MARS through the joint effort of the Plymouth University, yacht maker Shuttleworth Design, and autonomous craft specialist MSubs. Shuttleworth Design is making scale models for testing at the University’s Marine Building.

A part of the Plymouth University’s ‘Shape the Future’ fundraising campaign that was recently launched at the House of Lords, MARS unleashes rich opportunities for student internships as well as for groundbreaking developments for unmanned ship technology.

A Repeat of Revolutionary History

In September 1620, a merchant ship named Mayflower set sail from Plymouth, England. Among the 102 passengers aboard were a group of Protestant separatists who hoped to set up a new church in the New World.

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor Original Painting by William Halsall (1882) Source Retrieved From

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor
Original Painting by William Halsall (1882)
Retrieved From

We know this band of rebels as the ‘Pilgrims’. Their odyssey across the Atlantic during the peak of the storm season is now the stuff of legends and folklore and so is their fight against overwhelming odds after landing.

An important event here was the Mayflower Compact that established an elementary form of democracy wherein elected officials would administer a Civil Body Politic that made ‘just and equal laws’. Quite a revolutionary development for the seventeenth century!

Come 2020 and this historical voyage will celebrate its four hundredth anniversary. And a ship of the same name will take the same voyage from Plymouth, England to Plymouth in Massachusetts, United States. This ship is the MARS. What better way to commemorate the legendary voyage?

Design Principles

Propelling any vessel by solar power requires a prohibitively large solar cell area. Designers are therefore driving the vessel with solar as well as wind power. Plus, they are developing a folding wing system to boost solar cell area by 40% in calm sea conditions.

The Mayflower Autonomous Research Vessel (MARS) with both Sails Hoisted Image Credit Shuttleworth Design at

The Mayflower Autonomous Research Vessel (MARS) with both Sails Hoisted Image Credit Shuttleworth Design at

Trimaran is the most efficient hull form for low-speed motoring. Because the vessel is unmanned, designers can keep the central hull low to the water while raising and separating the wings and the deck.

Such a hull and deck design:

  • lowers windagee. the air resistance of the vessel
  • slashes water resistance on outer hulls by 8%
  • maintains the solar array at sufficient height above water where it is subjected only to low wave impact
  • enables waves to break through the vessel and reduce the roll created by wave impact

The two-masted soft sail rig will operate with either or both sails hoisted giving three sail combinations for differing wind speeds. The sails can be stowed in the deck. This:

  • prevents the sails from casting a shadow over the solar cells
  • slashes windage
  • enables the masts to stay tall so they can carry navigation lights

MARS comes with a high degree of reliability, robustness, and redundancy, for it can take ages to repair a broken down unmanned vessel in the midst of watery wilderness. And the mission control stations will monitor the vessel continuously to prevent piracy and vandalism.

Technical & Other Details

On windy days, the trimaran MARS can sail at a maximum speed of 20knots utilizing either or both of its sails. In the absence of breeze, the sails are automatically stowed below deck and the solar-powered electric motor propels the MARS at 12.5knots.

Technical Specifications

Feature Performance
Maximum Speed@ Sailing 20knots
Maximum Speed@ Electric Motoring 12.5knots
Range@ 5knots Electric Motoring Unlimited
Overall Length 32.5m
Beam 16.8m
Draft 0.875m(1.78m to tip of rudder)
Sail Area 159m2
Deck Construction Composite(Carbon/Nomex)
Hull Construction Composite(Aramid/Glass/Foam)

Using solar power to sail at 5knots, the MARS can sail to unlimited lengths. Some of these solar power cells are housed on the folding wing that opens only when the sea is calm. GPS and an onboard collision prevention device will navigate the vessel.

The Mayflower Autonomous Research Vessel (MARS) with both Sails Stowed Away Image Credit Shuttleworth Design at

The Mayflower Autonomous Research Vessel (MARS) with both Sails Stowed Away
Image Credit Shuttleworth Design at

Sailing without collection of data for research, the MARS can complete the Plymouth to Plymouth voyage in a matter of 7-10 days. But that is not what her makers have in mind. MARS will house modular payloads (drones) to research areas such as:

  • oceanography
  • meteorology
  • climatology
  • collaborative interaction between nested automated and autonomous vehicles that operate simultaneously on, below, or above water
  • energy and propulsion systems for marine vessels
  • advanced satellite communications
  • software for extended of automated and autonomous operations of ships
  • data harvesting i.e. programming the data systems to alert scientists (at mission control stations located at both Plymouths) when the drones collect data of great significance

What is more, the MARS is programmed to launch and retrieve drones on its own. Through all this, ProjectMARS can catalyze groundbreaking advances in solar, wind, and sail technology. Designers will test the MARS for a full year on water before setting her on the Atlantic voyage.

A possible problem area that the MARS may run into is the regulations related to operating autonomous crafts at sea. Developers have contacted authorities such as DNV GL, a leading international classification and certification society, and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.


As the shipping world migrates to greener technologies, research projects such as the MARS will increasingly acquire greater importance and drive innovation.

For a latest roundup on state of the art technologies in the world of shipping, visit our blog. Contact Kemplon Engineering for sterling marine fabrication services, marine pipe fitting, and large scale custom metal fabrication.