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The Future of Self-Driving Boats

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Helm of the future

Is this the helm of the future? It’s not as crazy as you think.

Who’s Driving?

Will boating follow the shipping industry down the road of autonomous driving?
For better or worse, it just might.

If you haven’t upgraded your car in the last couple of years, a visit to the local dealership is a giant step into the future. Features that existed only on high-end, luxury autos are now standard equipment or options on all new vehicles. Called Level 1 Autonomy by those in the industry, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and—my wife’s favorite—parking assist with automatic steering are just some of the systems designed to make the roads a little bit safer for everyone. 

The technology exists for fully autonomous vehicles, but regulations are still being drafted to determine the extent to which advanced autonomous vehicles will interact with drivers on our nation’s roadways. (It didn’t go so well for Uber.) And many of us enjoy driving, myself included. Would you buy a car without a steering wheel? It’s a sea change in behavior for both drivers and passengers.

Now, imagine this technology aboard your boat. The joy for boaters is running our beloved vessels. We already have helms chockablock with communications systems, multibeam sonar, live weather displays, and enough electronics to distract the helmsman, leading to what Power & Motoryacht’s Senior Electronics Editor Ben Ellison calls “computer-assisted groundings and collisions.” More technology can only erode an old salt’s situational awareness and the skills he first learned leaning over paper charts with parallel rulers, right? Well, the right amount of technology might be a godsend. 

As with cars, the impetus behind autonomous boats is safety. Marine insurance companies have reported that more than 75 percent of boating accidents can be attributed to human error. With this in mind and billions of dollars at stake, commercial shipping is leading the charge in developing and testing partial and fully autonomous vessels. 

Working with the Norwegian government and its national maritime agencies, Kongsberg Maritime and Rolls-Royce Marine established the first autonomous-designated test area in the world at Trondheim Fjord. Testing is focused on remotely operated vessels—with or without crew. “By 2025 we hope to have a remotely operated [manned] vessel at open sea and five years after that we expect unmanned ocean-going vessels to be a common sight on the ocean,” said Iiro Lindborg, general manager for remote and auto­nomous operations and ship intelligence at Rolls-Royce. 

The company hopes to achieve these goals with its Intelligent Awareness System, a tool I see as being very useful to recreational boaters. Multiple sensors, high-definition cameras, night vision, radar, LIDAR (light detection and ranging), and AIS data are combined to “give the crew on board a wider range of perspectives on their situation,” Lindborg said. LIDAR, the same technology used on the road in adaptive cruise control, is linked here with GPS to create 3-D environments. According to Lindborg, LIDAR can see four times better than the human eye in foggy conditions. The Intelligent Awareness System can even offer a bird’s-eye view of the environment from above. 

Rolls-Royce is also working on an automated docking system. The impact of all this technology can shape boat design, as it potentially obviates the need for wing stations on larger craft. It also opens the door to veteran yachtsmen whose mobility may be impaired, giving them the independence to continue doing what they love. “There’s a need for [this] on the recreational market,” Lindborg said. 

Kongsberg Maritime Project Manager Peter Due spoke of autonomous technology as well, and he mentioned a benefit I hadn’t thought of—the positive impact on the environment. Without the factor of human error—or a heavy hand on the throttles—autonomy will allow vessels to run at optimum engine load, cutting down on emissions and creating savings at the fuel dock. 

It’s unlikely there will be a “single autonomous solution applicable to all vessel types,” according to Due, but there are many things to take away from this testing. Not so long ago, GPS technology trickled down from the government and gave us all highly accurate chartplotters. Now imagine yourself in zero visibility in an unfamiliar setting. In this situation, Intelligent Awareness would be a fine tool, particularly if a land-based operator could take over the helm and guide you to safe harbor. I’d welcome that. More advanced technology will make our trips even safer. It’s still our job to dream up the destination.

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.