Self-Driving Boats

Autonomous Boats
Roboat - by ©MIT/AMS Institute.

As I wrote about in a recent blog posting, electric boats are growing in popularity, as they are silent, energy efficient,, and have zero pollution.  But what makes a Tesla car special is not just that is electric, it is that it can drive itself. Although there are not any boats available to general public that do this, there are a bunch of new companies working on it.

Autonomous navigation (in a Tesla or boat) all comes down to using artificial intelligence, which is a good fit for electric vehicles. Now that electric boats have gained some acceptance, the self-driving part is more easily achievable. An example is Roboat (shown in the photo above), which operates in the canals of Amsterdam with no captain or crew.

One advantage of self-driving vessels is they can be up to 80% smaller, making them cheaper to build, easier to navigate, and less expensive to power. They don’t need space for the typical human amenities such as bathrooms, decks, pilothouses, bunks, and kitchens.

Owning a self-driving boat is not just about saving money, it is also about safety.  Ship collisions account for over 1/3 of all maritime accidents, with most of these being caused by human error. Autonomous marine systems never get tired, providing obstacle detection and collision avoidance 24/7.

Using AI does not necessarily mean a human isn’t involved. A captain can use this advanced technology to get critical alerts and make more well-informed decisions to prevent accidents.  All of this is especially useful on cargo ships, which account for 90% of global trade.   

Sea Machines

The image above is from Sea Machines, which offers a system that allows a cargo ship to be piloted remotely from a PC. You can even set up a command center to control a fleet of ships.

Other companies developing autonomous boats include SEA-KIT, ZeaBuzz, SeaBubbles, Metal Shark, Rolls Royce, Buffalo Automation, Artemis Technologies, IBM, Liquid Robotics, SailBouy, SaildroneUnleash Future Boats, KONGSBERG, L3Harris, Open Ocean Robotics, and Orca AI.

Soon, you will be able to add Yachts.com to that list. Yes, that is right, we are working on developing our own self-driving boat. So far we are only at the model stage, see below:

Autonomous Boat Model

The prototype shown in this photo does not float, as it is much easier to test things out of the water. It uses an Android phone as a brain, a GPS sensor, 3D printed parts, and Python for programming. The phone acts as a server, allowing us to go to a private web page, enter the GPS coordinates for a destination, and have the “boat” automatically go there.

The main problem with this design is that, of course, it is not a boat. A boat needs to deal with moving in water and protecting the electronics from getting wet. And if it gets stuck, we either have to start all over and build a new one, or potentially drown swimming out to retrieve it.  But once we make a little more progress, here’s our potential design: 

Self-Driving Boat Design

This high-tech preview has probably whipped you into a frenzy, wondering how you can get your hands on our marvelous nautical creation. Because we would be overwhelmed with business, and want to focus on research and development, we are not taking any pre-orders (sorry to disappoint you).  But, stay tuned to our blog to see the next version, launching in a few weeks.