Autopilot system for recreational boating responds to threats before they occur

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A startup spun out of the University at Buffalo is developing a preemptive autopilot system that could lead to autonomous boats(Credit: University at Buffalo)

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Autopilot systems for yachts and inboard boats are a common backup that gives the captain an occasional rest. But these systems are designed to react to changes in conditions after they occur, which may be too late in certain circumstances, whereas the safest, most ideal system will preempt threats and react in anticipation of a coming danger. Google and others have been developing such systems for driverless cars for years, and now a startup spun out of the University at Buffalo hopes to sell preemptive marine autopilot systems to small and mid-size recreational boat owners.

Recreational boating accidents cost hundreds of lives each year. US Coast Guard statistics show over 4,000 accidents and 610 deaths (equivalent to 5.2 deaths per 100,000 registered vessels) from recreational boating in 2014, with operator inattention and inexperience, improper lookout, excessive speed, and alcohol use rated as the top contributing factors.

The startup, Buffalo Automation Group, has already tested its autonomous navigation technology on a 16-foot catamaran, and it expects the system to be able to handle boats up to 40 feet long. The system combines sensors and cameras to monitor weather conditions and obstacles in the water, and compares this real-time data with nautical charts and other static information about the boat and its surrounding environment.

If it senses a likely threat on the horizon, it adjusts course automatically – though the captain can at any time overrule it and regain control over the boat. The captain can also connect to the system wirelessly using a smartphone or laptop and tell it a destination. The system can then guide the boat from port to port, unaided, according to what the data shows is the safest and most efficient route possible.

As with all autonomous vehicles, it could take years of testing and refinements before we can be confident of the system's reliability across a variety of situations. But for inexperienced captains or solo sailors especially – which recreational boat pilots often are – the system's creators believe this could offer peace of mind that the boat is safe.

You can see a video below of the Buffalo Automation Group founders explaining their technology.

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