Four hundred years after pilgrims left Plymouth for a new life in America, a second Mayflower will set sail from Plymouth to America. But this ship will be unmanned, guided only by artificial intelligence systems.  

The idea is to bring the “driverless car” concept to the sea. Paddy Dowsett, one of the leaders of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) project and a 30-year Royal Navy veteran, spoke to lawyers from both sides of the Atlantic on Thursday, March 23 as part of Bond Dickinson's first ever International Innovation Week, held in collaboration with its US alliance partner Womble Carlyle.

The MAS team recently completed design work, and scale model testing is scheduled to begin this year. “We’re intending to have her at sea by early 2019,” Dowsett said. The 24-tonne, 32 metre carbon fibre ship will be covered in solar panels, powering it entirely with renewable energy. Dowsett said the research pioneered by the MAS project could lead to innovations in shipping and logistics. For example, an unmanned ship has a much greater cargo capacity, as there is no need for space to support a crew. However, he also said the project has uncovered numerous international maritime regulatory challenges.

These rules were written before the idea of self-piloting ships had been imagined, he said. The voyage will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the original Mayflower’s trip across the Atlantic. However, while the original Mayflower took four months to cross the ocean, its unmanned namesake will be able to make the trip in approximately two weeks.

Bond Dickinson's Innovation Week was held in collaboration with US Alliance partner, Womble Carlyle from 20-24 March, with 20 events taking place - looking at everything from how innovative technology is transforming the legal industry and other sectors; to how businesses must challenge themselves to develop more efficient business processes and new ways of engaging with clients as a first step to embedding a culture of innovation.

There were opportunities for all staff from both firms to listen, learn, debate and create, through a series of open invitation webinars, workshops, roundtable events and discussions that everyone can get involved in.